October 15th, 2019

Reality Check

DeVos' civil rights office closes more cases than predecessor

 Laura Meckler

By Laura Meckler The Washington Post

Published July 11, 2019

DeVos' civil rights office closes more cases than predecessor
Jabin Botsford for The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - The Education Department's civil rights office closed cases rapidly during the first two years of the Trump administration, as investigators opened far fewer systemic investigations, focusing instead on individual complaints.

Data released by the department Wednesday show that the agency closed more cases in each of the past two years than in any year during the Obama administration. But the share of resolved cases that required a school system to take action fell.

The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for investigating discrimination complaints in U.S. schools, including complaints based on race, sex and disability.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos trumpeted the figures and the agency's work to reduce the backlog of cases inherited from the previous administration.

"From day one, our approach has been clear and unwavering: vigorously enforce civil rights laws, treat students as individuals, and resolve cases both efficiently and effectively," she said in a statement.

Agency officials credited the administration's decision to stop routinely opening systemic probes that might turn up patterns of bias. In June 2017, the acting director of the department's Office for Civil Rights told her staff they no longer had to review three years of cases similar to the complaint that was being investigated - a process that had been used to find systemic bias. The agency said at the time the move would help shrink the backlog and more quickly resolve cases.

In addition, the agency revised the guidebook that civil rights investigators use, known as the case processing manual, and eliminated all references to "systemic" issues.

Advocates say this approach is too narrow and misses the opportunity to identify problems that extend beyond any one person's experience.

Kenneth Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, said Wednesday his office has shifted its focus to become "a neutral, impartial law enforcement agency."

"Instead of seeing every case as an opportunity to advance a political agenda, we are focused on the needs of each individual student and on faithfully executing the laws," he said in a statement.

The new data show the agency resolved more than 14,000 cases last year and nearly 18,000 in 2017. During the Obama administration, the agency closed more than 10,000 cases in only one year, 2013. About 8,600 were completed in 2016, the last year of that administration.

The agency also appears to have become less inclined to impose remedies in response to complaints. During the last two years, 10.8 percent of closed cases required districts to take action. That compares with an average of about 13 percent over the course of the eight-year Obama administration.

Civil rights advocates said faster processing does not equal better decisions.

"DeVos wants us to believe that spending less time assessing whether an individual's civil rights have been violated is efficient. But this is meaningless if we are failing to protect students from discrimination," said Laura Durso, vice president of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. Durso has studied data from the civil rights office.

"Considering a case closed is not the same as actually addressing the problem," said Liz King, education program director at the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights advocacy group. She said her group will work with allies to determine "whether dismissing and rapidly closing complaints is just another attack on children's civil rights."