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Equity & Diversity

Education Official to Lead the Civil Rights Commission

By Christina A. Samuels — December 30, 2016 2 min read
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Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, has been selected as chairwoman of the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights.

Lhamon, who has been assistant secretary since 2013, was appointed Dec. 15 for a six-year term to the commission; her unanimous selection as chairwoman was Dec. 28. The civil rights commission is made up of eight members, four of whom are appointed by the president and four appointed by Congress. Commissioners do not have to go through Senate confirmation, and can only be removed for neglect of duty or malfeasance.

Prior to joining the Education Department, Lhamon was the director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, a pro bono public interest law firm, from 2009 to 2013. She also worked in several capacities for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California from 1999 to 2009.

Under her leadership, the office for civil rights has taken an aggressive role in soliciting complaints and enforcing civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which offers protections to students with disabilities, and Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination. The Supreme Court plans to hear a case connected to the Education Department’s assertion that Title IX requires that transgender students be allowed to use school restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

The civil rights commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower and was the first civil rights act of the 20th century. It is tasked with developing civil rights policy. Over the course of its history, the commission has played an important role in the creation of landmark civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

In recent years, however, the role of the commission has been more uncertain. In 2010, Education Week reported that the commission held a day-long conference without significant input from civil rights organizations or its two Democratic members at the time. In recent years, the commission has released a statement about a rise in hate crimes, and has solicited state reports on topics such as the restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities in Kansas and the “school-to-prison-pipeline” in Indiana,. The latter is a term used by some advocacy groups to refer to harsh school discipline that disproportionately affects minority students.

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