Education Department is scaling back civil rights probes at schools and universities

June 19, 2017
Officials say the number of investigations had bogged down the department, but critics of the new policy say it will discourage thorough investigations.

The U.S. Department of Education says it is scaling back investigations into civil rights violations at the nation’s public schools and universities.

The New York Times reports that the move is an indication that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reshaping the agency’s approach to civil rights enforcement, which was bolstered while President Barack Obama was in office. The efforts during Obama’s administration resulted in far-reaching investigations and resolutions that required schools and colleges to overhaul policies addressing a number of civil rights concerns.

An internal memo from Candice E. Jackson, the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, states that the department is scaling back requirements that investigators broaden their inquiries to identify systemic issues and whole classes of victims. Also, regional offices no longer will be required to alert department officials in Washington of all highly sensitive complaints on issues such as the disproportionate disciplining of minority students and the mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The department's new leadership says the mandates imposed by the Obama administration sent complaints soaring and bogged down the agency.

The office’s processing times have “skyrocketed,” the Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said, adding that its backlog of cases has “exploded.” The new guidelines are intended to ensure that “every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve,” she said.

In the memo, Jackson says that the new protocols are aimed at resolving cases quickly. But civil rights leaders believe that the new directives will have the opposite effect. They say that department staff members will be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness.

“If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction that we should go,” says Catherine Lhamon, who was the assistant secretary of the Education Department’s civil rights office under Obama.

But the department’s move was supported by those who believe that the office for civil rights had become overzealous in its enforcement activities.

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