The top Democrat on the Senate education committee is expressing dismay at a report from ProPublica that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team want to scale back the Obama administration’s approach to investigating civil rights complaints.
“President Trump and his Administration can claim to oppose discrimination all they want, but actions speak louder than words—and everything they are doing is making it clear that they want to defang and weaken the federal government’s tools to protect the civil rights and safety of people across the country,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “If true, this would help clarify why Secretary DeVos is calling for major cuts to the Office for Civil Rights: because she simply doesn’t want it to do as much to protect students.”
Murray’s comments come in response to ProPublica’s Thursday story about an internal memo sent to regional offices of the U.S. Department of Education. In that June 8 memo, acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson called for reversing the Obama administration’s approach to investigating claims of racial discrimination, inequitable resources, and more. During the Obama years, civil rights investigators would consider if individual complaints were part of a broader pattern of discrimination by asking investigators to look at three years of compliance data.
That practice, which some critics said was onerous, won’t be continued under President Donald Trump unless the original complaint notes systemic problems, or the individual investigator can show higher ups why it’s warranted, the online news organization reported. The memo also gives more autonomy to regional offices, scaling back requirements that investigations be reviewed at the agency’s headquarters.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, said the changes aren’t intended to weaken civil rights protections.
“This about ensuring every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve,” Hill said in an email. “In OCR, processing times have skyrocketed in recent years and the case backlog has exploded. Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complaints has been denied for too long.”
The new instructions, she said, seek to “clear out the backlog while giving every complaint the individualized and thorough consideration it deserves.” The change will do that by getting rid of the “artificial requirement” to collect several years of data when the complaint may be able to be addressed faster and adequately without taking that extra step, Hill said.
And she noted that the instructions also called for “all civil rights violations be given equal care and importance, and every type of civil right to be enforced with equal vigor and vigilance.”
But civil rights advocates, including Catherine Llahmon, who led the office during Obama’s tenure, expressed big concerns about the move to ProPublica, saying it would undermine the office’s mission. Lhamon also took to Twitter Thursday to criticize the decision:
Americans deserve better. This civil rights rollback is dangerous for all of us. https://t.co/L8Qfo6mUOo
— Catherine E. Lhamon (@CatherineLhamon) June 15, 2017
ProPublica’s report comes as the Trump administration is seeking to cut 46 positions from the department’s office for civil rights, as part of an effort to trim the department’s staff by about 150 full-time workers.