Betsy DeVos Hints Her Civil Rights Office Will Quit "Overreaching" In Trump's America

by Tara Merrigan
Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In what appears to be part of a rollback of the Department of Education's formerly tough stance on civil rights violations, the Office for Civil Rights will be a "neutral" agency, wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a letter issued earlier this month. DeVos' letter said that under Barack Obama's guidance, her department "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."

The letter was addressed to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.),the ranking Democratic member on the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. In it, DeVos used strong language to push back against the Obama administration's overall approach, which was based on the understanding that civil rights violations on the personal level could be symptomatic of institutional-level wrongs.

At the previous administration's direction, OCR all too often automatically handled individual complaints as evidence of systemic institutional violations. OCR staff were forced to expand the scope of these investigations dramatically beyond the facts alleged in the filed complaint.

DeVos also claimed that the DoE's former understanding of civil rights violations led to "unprecedented processing times and significant backlogs, which in turn harmed students."

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.

Since her appointment as Secretary of Education, DeVos has spent much effort dismantling civil rights protections implemented during the Obama era. She, for example, said just last week that those suspected of committing rape should be shown more sympathy. The department's civil rights office has also come under scrutiny from President Donald Trump himself. Earlier this year Trump eliminated Obama-era protections of transgender students. (However, media reports from earlier this month suggested that DeVos may have opposed the rescinding of these protections.)

DeVos's call for shortening of investigations into alleged civil rights violations — which could be seen as a paring down of the agency — comes just weeks after the Trump's administration's budget, which would begin in October, proposed cutting 40 positions from the DoE's Office for Civil Rights.

In her letter to Sen. Murray, DeVos wrote that "the adage 'justice delayed is justice denied' is fitting" with regards to the what she claimed was a backlog in investigating civil rights cases. She also maintained that the OCR will be "unwavering in its commitment" to investigating these cases, even as a "neutral" agency.