On average, the U.S. Department of Education has resolved about twice as many civil rights cases per year under the Trump administration as it did under the Obama administration, the agency said in a news release Wednesday.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has praised her department’s efforts to more quickly resolve civil rights complaints. But critics say the agency has focused on closing cases at the expense of meaningful protections for vulnerable students.
“While many have tried to distort the nature of our approach, the numbers don’t lie,” DeVos said in a statement. “Our approach has been more effective at supporting students and delivering meaningful results.”
The agency has also seen an uptick in the number of complaints it resolved that required corrective actions from schools, the data say. That includes a 30 percent increase in Title VI resolutions of cases about race or national origin that required corrective action; a 60 percent increase in disability-related resolutions requiring corrective action; and an 80 percent increase in Title IX sex discrimination resolutions requiring such actions.
The data don’t say whether those corrective actions were as broad as those under the Obama administration, or more narrowly tailored to the individual student who filed the complaint.
“In FY 2017 and 2018, [the office for civil rights] resolved, on average, 3,297 more complaints annually than it received,” the education department said in a news release. “The eight fiscal years prior, [the office] resolved, on average, 1,262 fewer complaints than it received, which resulted in the current administration inheriting more than 7,800 unresolved cases
Among the biggest changes the office for civil rights has made during DeVos’s tenure: revisions to a manual for investigators that direct them not to consider each student complaint for evidence of broader discrimination. That’s the reversal of an Obama administration practice, in which the agency would consistently look at several years of data to look for systemic issues. Under the Trump administration’s approach, investigators instead look for evidence of broader discrimination “only where it is appropriate to do so in light of the allegations or based on facts ascertained in the investigation.”
The Trump education department also implemented a “rapid resolution process” and “facilitated resolution process” designed to help complainants and school districts or colleges resolve their issues quickly, with an assist from the agency. And it briefly got rid of, and later reinstated, language that called for investigators to dismiss multiple complaints originating from the same source.
The department saw a surge of civil rights complaints under President Barack Obama. Officials attributed this increase in part to highly public efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment under Title IX, as well as the issuance of new guidance related to racial equity in school discipline and the rights of transgender students.
DeVos revoked both those pieces of guidance, a move that was met with concern from civil rights groups and praise from conservative organizations who had deemed the Obama directives federal overreach.