Under Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education is expected to address allegations of civil rights violations less severely than in the past few years. The Obama administration issued new guidelines on how school districts should endeavor to protect the rights of all students. Under President Donald Trump, these are being rolled back, and reports suggest that, with DeVos as secretary of education, additional changes can be expected. DeVos has already said she doesn’t recognize a role for the Department of Education in ensuring that schools follow civil rights laws. A report on Friday goes further — and the ACLU isn’t standing for it.
According to the New York Times, it’s not just that Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education won’t interpret existing laws in a way that covers LGBTQ+ rights. In addition, the DoE will scale back its own investigations into these cases. Further, regional offices won’t have to report to the U.S. Department of Education when there are indicators of systemic issues, such as minority groups being the disproportionate recipients of disciplinary practices or mishandling of sexual assault cases.
Speaking on behalf of DeVos’ Education Department, Liz Hill said that the closer attention paid to civil rights issues under the Obama administration has increased processing times and caused a backlog. Under DeVos’ leadership, rather than backing up, many of these cases will simply not be a matter for the Department of Education.
The change is already having an effect. Saturday the Washington Post reported that DeVos’ Department of Education had reversed a decision regarding a transgender rights case. In 2016, the agency concluded that an unnamed female student had faced discrimination when teachers persistently addressed her by male pronouns and a name she had rejected, as well as blocking her access to girls’ bathrooms.
However, this week the student reportedly received a letter communicating that the Department of Education is rescinding those findings. Speaking for the civil rights office, acting head Candice Jackson said that the decision was withdrawn both because the student has a pending court case and because DeVos and the Trump administration have rolled back guidance on how schools should recognize the rights of transgender students.
The ACLU responded on Saturday, issuing a brief public warning to let the public know that if DeVos and the Department of Education don’t handle civil rights issues, the ACLU won’t be backing down.
When the Obama administration issued the guidance regarding civil rights issues for transgender students, the ACLU lauded it, declaring a “historic week for transgender rights.” The guidance simply sidestepped the issue of LGBTQ+ individuals not being a universally protected class by pointing out that barring a student from access to the facilities and privileges provided to others of the same gender is discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, and therefore already covered by Title IX. The revocation of this guidance under Trump and DeVos led to protest.
When Betsy DeVos was under consideration for Secretary of Education, the ACLU expressed concerns about the rights of LGBTQ+ students, citing, among other things, a report from the Intercept showing donations to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. (DeVos denied a connection to these donations, despite tax records indicating otherwise.)
Later, after DeVos took office, the ACLU again addressed her position on LGBTQ+ rights, asserting that DeVos refuses to answer relevant questions on these matters for students, warning as follows.
“…this administration does not have the authority to undo legal protections for transgender students. Trans students are protected by the U.S. Constitution and Title IX, and school districts across the country must still comply with the law.”
The ACLU then promised the following.
“…we will continue our work to safeguard the dignity and rights of trans students.”
Saturday’s tweet, declaring that if Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education backs away from addressing civil rights violations in education, the ACLU will step in to bridge gaps, appears to affirm this sentiment again.
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]