The U.S. Department of Education plans a new initiative designed to help schools, educators, and students understand and apply education civil rights laws, the agency announced Tuesday.
The Outreach, Prevention, Education and Nondiscrimination, or OPEN Center, will have about five employees housed within the Education Department’s office for civil rights.
While the civil rights office has largely focused on investigating complaints that schools or districts have violated civil rights laws, the new center will focus on “proactive compliance” by providing technical assistance to schools and guidance to the public, an announcement said.
“The OPEN Center is all about strengthening civil rights compliance through voluntary, proactive activities,” Assistant Secretary of Education Kenneth Marcus said in a statement. “Instead of waiting for violations to occur before responding, [the office for civil rights] will get in front of the problem, partnering with educators and other institutions to better protect students. As the name implies, we want to be a better resource, more welcoming and supportive of students, families, educators, and communities.”
The department did not outline any specific outreach or technical assistance plans. An agency employee said the OPEN Center would respond to requests of students, educators, and schools.
The Education Department is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, and disability status. It issues nonbinding guidance and regulations about how those laws affect to issues like admissions, class assignment, facilities, athletics, employment, discipline, bullying, and sexual assault and harassment in schools.
But schools and districts have said they sometimes struggle to ascertain how those laws’ requirements apply to specific areas of their policy and practice. And civil rights advocates have largely taken on the role of making students aware of their rights in schools.
The Trump administration’s Education Department is frequently criticized for its handling of civil rights issues, which played a key role in the divisive confirmation hearings of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos has rewritten or rescinded Obama-era directives on racial discrimination in school discipline, the rights of transgender students, special education, and how schools respond to sexual assault and harassment. And, under her leadership, the agency has streamlined its investigations, revoking policies that required investigators to review data to check for systemic concerns, rather than focusing more narrowly on the scope of the complaint that prompts an investigation.