Over the past eight years, officials in the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have pushed to transform their little-known agency into a force for social change on the nation’s schools and college campuses.
The office launched a data-driven campaign to prevent school districts from meting out harsher discipline to black and Latino students than to their white counterparts. It took on campus sexual assault as a federal civil rights issue, forcing colleges to more closely track rapes and sexual assaults and revamp their legal procedures for addressing them. It instructed public schools to treat transgender students consistent with their identity. And it waged battle after battle in individual school districts, such as one that resulted in a settlement this August that forced the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools to improve the education in its alternative schools.
But now, with the election of Donald J. Trump and his Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, many officials in the office fear much of what they see as progress could come to a halt.
Trump has publicly said that he would either dismantle or cut the Department of Education by “a lot.” Many conservatives believe the agency has gone too far in pushing a progressive federal agenda on local community schools. At least one Trump surrogate has suggested the Office of Civil Rights is no longer needed, calling it “self-perpetuating absolute nonsense.”
Earlier this month at an event meant as a celebration of its accomplishments over the past eight years, many speakers couldn’t help but make ominous — and repeated — remarks about the recent presidential election.
“We’ve got some tough times ahead but we are up to it,” said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, during opening remarks. Edelman was once a mentor and boss to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We might as well just hunker down and cry about it on nights and weekends,” she told the audience, setting off a round of laughs.
In interview after interview, current and former members of the office and civil rights advocates said they feared the Trump administration could hamstrung or even completely eliminate the office.
“I have no confidence at all that it will be anything other than a horror show in terms of federal civil rights enforcement,” said Dan Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. ”
The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to an interview request.
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with investigating discrimination in schools based on race, nationality, disability, sex or age. The office said it received a record 16,720 complaints of discrimination last year, “at a time when OCR’s staffing levels remained at a near all-time low.”
Many Obama-era OCR employees worry that a Trump administration could rollback guidelines that effectively require schools to make changes. Already, some Republican legislators have previously argued that the agency’s recommendations should not be legally binding.
“A lot of it can just be taken down off the website and go away,” a former OCR attorney told BuzzFeed News.
The OCR’s top official, Catherine Lhamon, declined to speculate about Trump’s plans for the office. She noted that of office’s nearly 600 staff members, only seven are politically appointed and the other 593 could continue their work in the next administration.
“I hope the career staff will stay and complete the investigations,” she said. “I believe they’ll respond as necessary.”
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