On Thursday, ProPublica published a report finding that—shockingly—the Trump administration is rolling back civil rights protections across federal agencies.
Two agencies in particular—the Department of Justice and the Department of Education—are actively making it harder for citizens to file complaints of unfair treatment against police departments and schools.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled the DOJ is rolling back the federal government’s oversight of local police departments, essentially leaving the police to police their own behavior. That has opened the door to police mistreating African-Americans and victims of sexual assault with impunity.
Now, the Department of Education seems to be taking a similar tack. Secretary Betsy DeVos has already proposed cutting more than 40 positions from her department’s civil rights division. And, according to a leaked internal memo published by ProPublica, the agency intends to “lose requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints.”
This news, while horrifying, should be of no surprise to anyone who watched DeVos’ mealy-mouthed testimony on whether her department will prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ students:
This narrowing of the department’s investigations “is stunning to me and dangerous,” said Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “It’s important to take an expansive view of the potential for harm because if you look only at the most recent year, you won’t necessarily see the pattern,” said Lhamon.
On June 8, Candice Jackson, the Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, sent an internal memo essentially discouraging her office’s regional directors from doing their jobs:
The new guidance would reverse the Obama administration’s efforts to protect students by combating school segregation and other civil rights violations.
From Jackson’s memo:
In particular, [the Office of Civil Rights] will no longer follow the existing investigative rule of obtaining three (3) years of past complaint data/files in order to assess a recipient’s compliance...For example, if a discipline complaint requires analysis of whether a facially-neutral suspension policy was applied differently against a particular student based on a prohibited classification such as race, the investigative team (supervised by their Team Leader and Regional Director) is empowered to determine what comparative data ([Civil Rights Data Collection] or otherwise) are necessary to, e.g., determine if other similarly-situated students of a different race were, in fact, treated differently from the student on whose behalf the complaint was filed.
In other words: federal civil rights overseers should not take on civil rights complaints on a case-by-case basis, but only find fault if they can prove a school or other institution has systemically oppressed a group of students. To employ Jackson’s own example: if a white teacher happens to dole out stricter punishments to black students, and a student files a civil rights complaint, they cannot prove discrimination occurred unless they can prove that the school’s entire black student body has been systematically punished.
This is, obviously, a much higher bar for students and parents to clear, which will make it much harder for students—and especially black students—to dispute unfair treatment and receive retribution.