What others say: Keep Department of Education civil rights office strong

  • Wednesday, July 5, 2017 11:34am
  • Opinion

Civil rights organizations and some members of Congress are troubled by the Trump administration’s rollback of civil rights enforcement generally, but they are particularly worried by what is going on at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The office has played a crucial role in protecting the rights of transgender students and victims of sexual assault and especially in forcing school districts to abandon disciplinary policies that unfairly single out minority children for suspension and expulsion.

This issue came to the fore this month when the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, Candice Jackson, sent a memo to the office’s regional directors backing away from a policy that requires investigators to look for systemic problems — and whole classes of victims — when civil rights complaints emerge. The department says the new policy will expedite investigations, but critics rightly argue that it could discourage the staff from opening cases at all.

Over the past decade, investigators often looked at years of data to determine if discrimination, harassment and other problems raised in a complaint indicated a systemic problem that affected other students in the same school district or institution.

That kind of data collection has allowed the department to ferret out trends that might otherwise have been missed — notably concerning school disciplinary practices. For example, in 2014 parents and educators across the country were startled to learn that minority children were subjected to excessive disciplinary practices at every level in the public schools.

Federal data showed that minority preschoolers — mere 4-year-olds — were nearly four times as likely to be suspended as their white peers, at an age when they cannot absorb the lesson from such a punishment. Federal civil rights officials issued guidance showing districts how to avoid such discriminatory policies. Beyond that, the data has had a powerful effect on researchers wo have begun looking into the roots of this serious problem.

Civil rights groups and lawmakers are worried that the Education Department is preparing to abandon the role it is supposed to play in prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights — an independent bipartisan agency that advises the government — has begun an investigation into the administration’s retreat, citing the Education Department as a place of particular concern. And on Tuesday, Senate Democrats demanded that the department furnish information about how investigations are being handled and why the policy was changed. In addition, a bipartisan group of House members have asked the department to maintain guidance issued by the Obama administration for combating sexual violence in schools of kindergarten through 12th grade.

This represents a good start. But civil rights groups and federal lawmakers need to keep bird-dogging this agency whose job is to protect America’s schoolchildren.

—The New York Times, June 28, 2017

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