Commission on Civil Rights to probe Trump administration enforcement
- Author: Leroy Wright Jun 17, 2017,
Jun 17, 2017, 22:20
"That guidance provided clarity to schools, as well as to transgender students and their parents", James Esseks, the director of the ACLU's LGBT and HIV Project, said in a statement. "Please evaluate each allegation separately, searching for a permissible jurisdictional basis for OCR to retain and pursue the complaint".
The new directives are the first steps taken under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reshape her agency's approach to civil rights enforcement, which was bolstered while President Barack Obama was in office.
After revoking Obama-era guidance assuring transgender kids in school have access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity, the Department of Education has issued new rules indicating the Trump administration may seek to adjudicate situations in which schools are allowing student harassment based on gender identity. The guidance sparked legal challenges and a national debate about transgender students' rights. "Federal court rulings are increasingly on the side of transgender students, even if Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Sessions are not". She has signaled that her office is "not going to be issuing any decrees" on civil rights and that those should come from Congress or the courts.
Jackson, the acting head of the civil rights office, has directed lawyers to narrow the scope of investigations into sexual assault and discriminatory school discipline policies, according to a June 8 memo first reported by ProPublica. It also states that the Office for Civil Rights may no longer rely on that guidance when deciding how to respond to transgender student complaints.
Advocates for transgender students fear that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is trying to ditch the burden of having to protect students against bathroom discrimination.
The memo regarding transgender students lists specific instances where officers could have "subject matter jurisdiction", such as failure to use a student's preferred pronoun or a school or district's failure to fix an environment that is hostile toward transgender students. And it may still investigate complaints that a school has failed to address hostile environments created by gender-based harassment or sex stereotyping.
According to the report, there's just one instruction specifically addressing student bathrooms. "The presumption here should be it's business as usual, and not that OCR is abdicating its role as a protector of civil rights for transgender students". That move sparked criticism from LGBTQ rights groups, who argued that rescinding the guidance would leave students at risk of harassment, bullying, and discrimination.
A statement from the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network expresses similar concern.
"It seems that what they are saying is that they will enforce the law for some students and not others", Keisling said.
The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights this week closed a long-running discrimination case involving a transgender student and withdrew its earlier findings that the girl had suffered discrimination at school, a move that comes amid the Trump administration's push to scale back civil rights investigations in public schools.
"Along with changing programmatic priorities, these proposed cuts would result in a unsafe reduction of civil rights enforcement across the country", the commission concluded, "leaving communities of color, LGBT people, older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups exposed to greater risk of discrimination".
The unclear instructions issued by the Department of Education sow a new level of confusion and doubt for students, families and schools. The Trump administration will put much less of an emphasis on investigating individual complaints for evidence of broader, systemic discremination.
The Department of Education did not return a request for comment by NBC News. "In OCR, processing times have skyrocketed in recent years, and the case backlog has exploded".
"It's renegade law", she said.
Under the Obama administration, the department's office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations.
"President Trump and his Administration can claim to oppose discrimination all they want, but actions speak louder than words - and everything they are doing is making it clear that they want to defang and weaken the federal government's tools to protect the civil rights and safety of people across the country", Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement.