DeVos: Civil rights office will return to being a ‘neutral’ agency

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she is "returning" the Office for Civil Rights "to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency."

In a July 11 letter to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, DeVos asserted that the department’s civil rights arm under the Obama administration "had descended into a pattern of overreaching, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than work with them to correct civil rights violations and of ignoring public input prior to issuing new rules."

As part of the changes she is implementing, the civil rights office would no longer issue "new regulations via administrative fiat," like the Obama administration did, she wrote.

DeVos’ letter, which lays out a far less activist philosophy for the civil rights office, came in response to a letter sent late last month by 34 Senate Democrats, who blasted her for a series of actions they said had "diminished" civil rights enforcement. The lawmakers asked DeVos for a host of information by July 11, including a list of civil rights investigations that have been closed or dismissed since the Trump administration began. DeVos didn’t provide any of the information in her response.

Murray sent DeVos another letter on Friday repeating her request for the information. She did not address DeVos’ assertions about the actions taken by the Obama-era civil rights office.

DeVos wrote that the agency is "unwavering in its commitment" to defend students’ civil rights. But during the Obama administration, the office "all too often handled individual complaints as evidence of systematic institutional violations," she wrote. Acting assistant secretary for civil rights Candice Jackson told the office’s regional directors in June to stop doing just that.

The Obama administration’s approach "forced" OCR staff "to expand the scope of these investigations dramatically beyond the facts alleged in the filed complaint," DeVos wrote. "This led to unprecedented processing times and significant backlogs."

DeVos continued: "The adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is fitting in this instance; too many students have been forced to wait months, and in some cases years, for adjudication of their complaints while OCR chose to collect years of data about an institution."

DeVos suggested that some of the changes taking place at OCR come after discussions with "career staff … who had identified material problems impeding their ability to promptly seek justice."

Conservatives had frequently criticized the Obama administration for issuing far-reaching, albeit nonbinding "guidance," for instance, informing states they must allow transgender students to access bathrooms and locker rooms aligned with their gender identity, or risk loss of federal funds. Conservatives contended such "guidance" sidestepped the formal rule-making process. The Trump administration rescinded the transgender guidance earlier this year.

That kind of guidance may have been "politically expedient," DeVos wrote, "but it deprived the public of meaningful opportunities to provide input. At my direction, the department will no longer mask new regulations as Dear Colleague letters and will issue new regulations only after appropriate notice and public comment."

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