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Equity & Diversity

Changes to Civil Rights Probes Under Betsy DeVos Alarm Democrats

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 23, 2018 3 min read
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More than a dozen Democratic senators allege in a letter that changes to civil rights investigations under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos jeopardize students who face discrimination at school.

In a Tuesday letter to DeVos, 17 Democrats allege that new protocols for the office of civil rights’ case processing manual would unfairly leave many students with legitimate complaints out in the cold in a misguided attempt to improve efficiency.

The lawmakers’ concerns stem from changes the Education Department made to weed out those considered “serial complainers” by federal officials. The new manual states that the office for civil rights will toss out complaints that show “the continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or a group against multiple recipients, or a complaint is filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.” In March, our coworker Christina A. Samuels highlighted this new approach in a story focused on the office for civil rights’ shift in how it considered disability-related complaints. Here are other changes to the civil rights case manual that Christina mentioned:

In addition to the requirement to dismiss complaints if they reflect a burdensome pattern, the new case processing manual also gives complainants 14 days to provide additional information for a case instead of 20 days as had been allowed previously. The manual also eliminates a process that complainants could use to appeal a decision, and says that complaints are not subject to investigation if they’re based exclusively on “statistical data, media reports, journals/studies and/or other published articles as the basis for the alleged discrimination.

The DeVos team has maintained that the new procedures will ensure that complaints are dealt with fairly and efficiently. In a statement, Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said, “Case processing procedures in the new [manual] allow OCR to better accomplish this critical mission by improving OCR’s management of its docket, investigations, and case resolutions.”

However, Democrats allege that the new approach under DeVos amounted to an abdication of the office for civil rights’ duties.

“Dismissing multiple complaints, without investigation, from the same advocacy group or individuals ignores OCR’s responsibility to address systemic bias or discrimination,” the senators wrote.

“Dismissing cases without investigation through the use of arbitrary standards, regardless of merit, is not the appropriate way to resolve such a backlog,” Democrats wrote to DeVos, instead urging her to make sure the office for civil rights is properly staffed.

Last year, the office for civil rights also changed its approach to complaints involving transgender students.

On Tuesday, DeVos sparred with Democrats at a hearing of the House education committee over her approach to civil rights enforcement. While lawmakers such as Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, accused DeVos of failing to enforce federal civil rights law, DeVos countered that while she considered it her primary responsibility to enforce the law, she refused to create new legal requirements for schools.

Senators on the letter who also serve on the Senate education committee include Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Read the full letter from Democratic senators.

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