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Senate Confirms Catherine Lhamon to Civil Rights Post; Kamala Harris Casts Decisive Vote

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 20, 2021 2 min read
Catherine Lhamon, nominee to be assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, testifies during a Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
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The Senate has confirmed Catherine Lhamon to lead the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, one of the most prominent jobs in the federal education bureaucracy.

The Wednesday vote means that Lhamon, as assistant secretary for civil rights, will once again take charge of the office she led during the Obama administration.

Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate to seal Lhamon’s confirmation. The Senate education committee’s consideration of her nomination resulted in a tie vote, meaning that an extra procedural step had to take place before her nomination was put to the full Senate for a final vote.

Many education civil rights groups and activists have hailed Lhamon as a champion for students of color and others who are often discriminated against in public schools. Yet her critics say she’s sought to impose “progressive social policy” on schools irrespective of legal and other concerns, with “divisive results.”

During her first tenure under Obama, Lhamon oversaw the office when it helped draft 2016 guidance to schools directing them to allow transgender students to use facilities like restrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity.

She also signed off on 2014 guidance that told schools they might be violating federal civil rights law if they had major racial disparities in their discipline decisions.

And her office also issued Title IX guidance about sexual assaults at schools and on college campuses during the Obama administration. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, rescinded that guidance in 2018, stating that the guidance did not sufficiently protect the rights of the accused.

Lhamon, in turn, harshly criticized new Title IX regulations issued by DeVos last year, stating that they wind the clock back to a time “when it was permissible to rape and sexually harass students with impunity.”

That comment as well as Lhamon’s past actions came under intense scrutiny from GOP senators during her July confirmation hearing.

Lhamon’s critics also say that her position on transgender students’ rights, for example, has put biological girls at a disadvantage when it comes to activities like team sports. The Biden administration has asserted that Title IX protects against discrimination on the basis of gender identity as well as sexual orientation.

Lhamon reiterated that position to senators in July. She also said that she would reinstate the Obama-era guidance on racial disparities in school discipline.

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