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Equity & Diversity

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Resigned. Here’s His Record on Children’s Civil Rights

By Alyson Klein — November 07, 2018 4 min read
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who has clashed repeatedly with the civil rights community over transgender students, affirmative action, immigration, and more—has resigned his post, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Wednesday.

Matthew Whitaker, Session’s chief of staff, will take over as acting attorney general, until Trump nominates a replacement.

As attorney general and as an Alabama senator before that, Sessions was generally skeptical of administrative civil rights guidance, which he viewed as taking power from local decisionmakers.

Transgender Rights

In one of his first acts as attorney general, Sessions teamed with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to rescind Obama-era guidance on the rights of transgender students in public schools.

Among other things, that guidance directed schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. It argued that Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, applies more broadly to gender, a position held by several federal courts.

In rescinding the guidance in February 2017, Sessions and DeVos left it up to local schools to decide how they would treat transgender students, which some civil rights groups argued would leave them vulnerable to harassment, stigmatization, and harm at school.

“Congress, state legislatures, and local governments are in a position to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing this issue,” Sessions said in a statement at the time.

Affirmative Action

And over this past summer, Session’s Justice Department joined with the Education Department in ditching Obama-era guidance calling on school districts universities to consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses.

Sessions’ department argued that the Obama guidelines on affirmative action were essentially federal overreach. The guidance did not have the force of law, but it was considered the federal government’s official interpretation of affirmative action policy. The move drew swift criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups.


Sessions also played a role in the legal battle over the future of DACA, an Obama-era program that gives protection to an estimated 700,000 immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.

In September 2017, Sessions announced the order to end program, short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but federal courts have blocked the move. The Trump administration petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court this week to review the issue even before a federal appeals court has ruled on the program’s legality.

As the case winds its way through the legal system, the federal government is required to accept renewals for DACA but not new applicants. If the program is ended, currently protected individuals could be deported; the fallout would be widespread for children in the nation’s K-12 schools.

In fact, Sessions used an appearance before the National Association of School Resource Officers, a membership organization for school police officers, to talk not about school shootings, but about immigration.

“The compassionate thing to do is to protect our children from drugs and violence, put criminals in jail, and secure our borders,” Sessions said in June, a little more than a month after a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 dead, and the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17. “Having an immigration system that has integrity and consistency is right and just and moral. The alternative is open borders—which is both radical and dangerous.”

And, as a member of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ school safety commission, Sessions highlighted school districts in rural Arkansas that arm school staff to help cope with potential school shootings.

Special Education

The selection of Sessions as attorney general dismayed some in the special education community, because of remarks he made 18 years ago that the regulations around the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were “accelerating the decline in civility in discipline in classrooms all over America.”

During a speech on the Senate floor in 2000, Sessions related several stories from educators in his home state of Alabama who said they were unable to control the children in their classrooms because of restrictions placed on them by the special education law.

Sessions said that he did not want to undermine the special education law. “But at the same time, we need to say that a child is not allowed to commit crimes, to disrupt classroom, to curse teachers, principals and students, and abuse them and do so with impunity.”

Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996. He voted in favor of IDEA reauthorization in 1997 and in 2004, which was the last time that the special education law was modified by Congress. While in Congress, he also teamed up with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on comprehensive reading legislation.

Photo: Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Justice Department’s National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, in Bethesda, Md., in 2017.--Jacquelyn Martin/AP-File

Christina A. Samuels, Senior Writer/Editor; Corey Mitchell, Associate Editor; and Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.