Why We Can’t Weaken the Office for Civil Rights

August 01, 2017

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has long played a key role in ensuring fair and equitable education for all students. Unfortunately, leaders in the Trump administration have discussed weakening or eliminating OCR, as we’ve written about before. It now appears that the Department of Education is taking steps towards making this a reality.

In the past few years, HSC has been happy to see OCR step up its commitment to including a safe and healthy school environment in its definition of equitable education. For example, OCR recently added chronic absenteeism and measures of students’ access to school health professionals to their Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). This data has enabled stakeholders across the country to better understand these issues, and is a crucial step toward identifying and addressing chronic physical and emotional health conditions that can keep children from being in school, ready to learn.

Last month, however, acting assistant secretary for civil rights Candice Jackson sent her staff a memo that signals some larger concerns about the office’s commitment to its own mission. The memo prioritizes efficiency over thoroughness, suggesting that investigators work to quickly clear individual complaints rather than, as had been the office’s prior custom, looking at several years of data to rule out systematic problems. We worry that this focus on individuals will make it difficult to see and address the root causes of problems such as chronic absenteeism.

Last month, 34 senators sent a letter to Secretary DeVos outlining their concerns. In particular, they cited this area of the new guidance, saying “limiting use of the systematic approach may cause investigators to miss issues of pervasive discrimination or civil rights abuses.” They also noted with alarm that the office has publicly stepped away from its commitment to enforce civil rights protections for transgender students.

Without a fully functional and committed OCR, stakeholders across the country will be limited in their efforts to identify and address inequities in education, including those related to health and wellness. This will hamper efforts to identify and address health disparities that are a major cause of the academic achievement gap. HSC joins these senators in expressing our grave concern with the Department of Education’s commitment to civil rights and OCR.