A new protocol will allow the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to dismiss cases that they deem to be repetitive in nature or that stem from the same complainant. The OCR says that complaints of this kind often slow the office down and create a workload that’s impossible to manage efficiently. So far hundreds of civil rights cases from schools across the nation have been dismissed, and the DOE shows no signs of walking back the protocol even in the face of pushback. While it makes sense that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would want the office to run smoothly, many are fearing that this is simply another excuse to undermine the presence to the Civil Rights Office in American schools and will allow systemic inequality to go unchecked.
The new protocol manual drops all examples of DOE officers addressing systemic issues and tells the department to ignore cases when certain complaints were “previously filed with OCR. by an individual or a group against multiple recipients,” or when complaints “filed for the first time against multiple recipients” place “an unreasonable burden on OCR.’s resources.” But in the eyes of certain civil rights groups, the DOE shouldn’t be able to pick and choose when systemic inequality is a problem.
“The thing that scares me is when they get to say ‘we won’t open some cases because it’s too much for us,’ or ‘we don’t like the complainant,’ or ‘it’s not our week to work on that,’ you start to change the character of the office,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the woman who led the Office for Civil Rights under Barack Obama told the New York Times.
Under Betsy DeVos, the DOE has rolled back certain Obama era protections that ensured that trans students can use the bathroom that they feel correlates with their gender identity. For years those same students had been subject to a rigid gender binary built into the education system that forced students to use bathrooms that made them uncomfortable to be in. Last October, the DOE also rescinded 72 guidance documents that outlined the rights of disabled students in an attempt to cut down on what the Trump administration felt was an excess of regulation.
While the Trump administration calls it excess regulation, for years students with disabilities like ADHD, autism, or visual impairment — just to name a very small handful — weren’t being diagnosed, let alone properly accommodated, at the same public schools their parents paid taxes to support. Black students are also suspended at way higher rates than their white peers as well, and beyond that, schools in black areas are inarguably underfunded. All of these are symptoms of the systemic problems plaguing the American school system that the DOE seems to be distancing themselves from now.
The timing of the protocol dismissing certain civil rights complaints is also worth looking into. Betsy DeVos recently had her budget proposal shredded by Congress. In that proposal, she sought a massive decrease in the OCR’s funding which Congress denied in the form of an $8.5 million increase for the office only weeks after the new protocol was implemented. The influx of money is specifically meant to help the OCR deal with their massive caseload, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the DOE would say anything that would suggest they don’t have the means to address each of the complaints in a timely manner when they cut the civil rights protocols and were then immediately handed an $8.5 million solution to the problem.
Even in the face of the budget increase, and the changed protocol, the DOE has yet to provide an explanation as to how they will determine when a civil rights case is a poor use of office funds or resources. It’s that lack of specificity that seems to make certain people question the effort.
“There’s not a limitation on justice, and there’s not a limitation on how we perceive injustice,” Lhamon said to the New York Times. “To say you’ve reached your quota is to say that there’s somehow a cap on the number of children who might be harmed.”