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Betsy DeVos Tells a Top Critic: Obama Civil Rights Approach ‘Harmed Students’

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 16, 2017 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is shooting back at one of her biggest political foes and defending her approach to civil rights enforcement, but the political brawl over the issue isn’t dying down.

In a July 11 letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., DeVos said that while upholding the nation’s civil rights laws is “among the most important missions” at her department, the Obama administration’s decision to expand the scope of investigations into potential violations meant that too many individual students’ complaints went unaddressed. That approach, DeVos said, created a “justice delayed is justice denied” situation.

On Monday, however, Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, called for the top civil rights official under DeVos, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson, to resign over comments she made about sexual assault on college campuses.

“Ms. Jackson’s callous, insensitive, and egregious comments regarding sexual assault on college campuses crossed a serious line and highlighted her clear biases in this area in a way that, to me and many women and men across the country, should disqualify her from service in the position of top Department of Education protector of students’ right to be safe at school,” Murray said in a statement.

In a separate July 14 response, Murray told the secretary that her department still hasn’t provided information she has previously asked for, including on open cases involving transgender students and sexual harassment as of the end of January and on all the civil rights probes at her department that have been closed.

DeVos’ handling of civil rights has become one of the most controversial elements of her tenure. The education secretary has said that, on her watch, the office for civil rights will take a case-by-case approach to complaints, to ensure faster resolutions and avoid overreach from Washington. However, her critics charge that such an approach willfully ignores systemic problems in education involving civil rights. The back and forth from a few days ago is the latest installment in this running argument.

In her letter to Murray, DeVos struck back at what she called “incorrect statements and unfounded arguments” the senator and other Democratic lawmakers put forward in a letter they sent DeVos late last month regarding civil rights issues. DeVos stressed that she was returning the office for civil rights investigative branch to being a “neutral, impartial investigative agency.” The secretary also said:

At the previous administration’s direction, OCR all too often automatically handled individual complaints as evidence of systemic institutional violations. As a result, OCR staff were forced to expand the scope of these investigations dramatically beyond the facts alleged in the filed complaint. This led to unprecedented processing times and significant backlogs, which in turn harmed students. ... Too many students have been forced to wait for months, and in some cases years, for adjudication of their complaints while OCR chose to collect years of data about an institution.

In her July 14 response, Murray reiterated her demands for information concerning, among other things:

  • Whether the department will continue to post resolution agreements to civil rights cases online.
  • Any internal memos and other discussions about potential budget cuts to OCR. (The proposed Trump budget would cut OCR.)
  • A “complete, unredacted” copy of the manual that investigators at OCR will use under DeVos’ leadership.

Jackson spurred outrage last week when she told the New York Times that 90 percent of sexual assault cases on college campuses involved both students being drunk and failed relationships. Jackson quickly apologized, and DeVos said Thursday that there needs to be a new approach to investigations into such incidents under Title IX, although she didn’t get into specifics.

Earlier this year, DeVos rescinded the Obama administration’s transgender guidance to schools designed to give students more protections—her department has since stated that when it comes to transgender students rights, the feds should focus on bullying, but not equal access to facilities.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said it was launching a two-year investigation into how DeVos’ Education Department and other federal agencies handle civil rights issues. The commission is led by Catherine Lhamon, the former top civil rights official at the department during much of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Read DeVos’ July 11 letter to Murray.

And here is Murray’s July 14 response.

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill last month before a Senate appropriations subcommittee about the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget. (Susan Walsh/AP)