Memo Outlines Education Dept. Plans to Scale Back Civil-Rights Efforts

Image Betsy DeVos

Image Betsy DeVos

After the Department of Education and the Department of Justice rescinded Obama administration guidance regarding transgender students in February, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has received new guidance on how to deal with cases of discrimination against transgender students.

That would suggest the Department of Education is repositioning itself in the Trump administration against anti-trans discrimination in schools.

But transgender students still have protections against "discrimination, bullying and harassment" based on other federal guidance and regulations, the memo emphasizes, urging enforcement offers to look for any "permissible jurisdictional basis for OCR to retain and pursue the complaint".

The memo regarding transgender students lists specific instances where officers could have "subject matter jurisdiction", such as failure to use a student's preferred pronoun or a school or district's failure to fix an environment that is hostile toward transgender students.

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First, the nightmare. ProPublica posted an internal memo from Candice E. Jackson, the acting head of the Department of Education's office for civil rights, which lays out changes to the way the office will handle some types of complaints.

An employee familiar with the guidance told HuffPost he interprets this to mean that officials should investigate issues of discrimination just as they would have before the Obama-era rules were implemented. Media reports indicated DeVos privately resisted the move, but agreed go along with it on the insistence of President Trump. The employee noted any student who is not allowed to use bathrooms or locker rooms consistent with the gender identity could be considered a victim of sex stereotyping. Jackson also states that OCR's goal is to swiftly address compliance issues raised by individual complaints, reach reasonable resolution agreements directly responsive to addressing the concerns raised in the individual complaint being resolved, and to encourage voluntary settlements whenever possible.

Now, in fairness to Devos, the Office for Civil Rights currently faces a sizeable backlog, and both complainants and schools have criticized the length of the investigations.

"The Trump administration's decision to revoke the guidance on Title IX and transgender students was a shameful move", Esseks said. The guidance sparked legal challenges and a national debate about transgender students' rights. A lingering worry for opponents is that the emphasis on efficiency and speed may arrive at the expense of thorough investigations, something the Department of Education can not do without.

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However, they also pointed to Trump's proposed budget, stating that "proposed cuts would result in a risky reduction of civil rights enforcement across the country". "Federal court rulings are increasingly on the side of transgender students, even if Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Sessions are not".

While working under Obama, Lhamon helped write guidance explaining to schools that Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, protects students' right to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

Proposed staffing and budget cuts, and mergers of various offices in the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services will all have a negative impact on the federal government's job to monitor civil rights compliance efforts, says the commission.

"GLSEN calls on OCR to specify whether they will defend trans students' access to safe and appropriate school facilities - regardless of where the student lives or what local protections may or may not exist", Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, said in a statement.

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