A group of civil rights and disability organizations joined together last week to fight new provisions that would allow the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to dismiss complaints that would be too financially burdensome for the office to manage. According to The Hill, the organizations, including the NAACP, announced it was suing Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson on Thursday.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in Maryland last Thursday, the NAACP is joined by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA). The New York Times, which first reported on the lawsuit, noted the groups have argued that DeVos violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and requested that a judge stop the new rules from being in effect.
The new manual's provisions were originally announced back in March. Aside from allowing for the dismissal of burdensome cases, they also removed the appeals process for decisions made by the Office of Civil Rights. The Hill reports that the changes allow for the OCR to dismiss complaints that reflect "a pattern of complaints previously filed with O.C.R. by an individual or a group against multiple recipients," or place "an unreasonable burden on O.C.R.’s resources."
"By summarily changing policies to allow for the dismissal of civil rights complaints and the ability of organizations to appeal their rulings, DeVos is basically saying protecting civil rights and the rights of those with disabilities no longer matter at the Department of Education," NAACP General Counsel Bradford M. Berry told The Root.
According to reports from March, when the new manual was released, DOE officials argued that the changes were designed with the intention of improving organization and efficiency. Department spokesperson Liz Hill told The New York Times that the changes were indicative of the DOE's "commitment to robustly investigating and correcting civil rights issues" and "improving O.C.R.’s management of its docket, investigations and case resolutions."
But not everyone agrees. "The changes to the manual are contrary to OCR’s mission; occurred without any public notice; and, in effect have summarily eliminated substantive rights of the very people OCR purports to serve," said Denise Marshall, COPAA executive director, in a press release. "With this arbitrary and capricious action OCR has abandoned its basic duty to investigate legitimate complaints of discrimination by students with disabilities and their parents."
The OCR website says that its mission is to "ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights." One of the ways it aims to do this is by facilitating complaints made against educational institutions that receive federal dollars. If a person believes that any such institution has discriminated against them or someone else on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age, they may file a grievance through the office. Those suing the DOE argue that changes to the manual essentially defang the OCR's capacity to oversee those complaints.
"Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education have determined that civil rights no longer matter," NAACP Spokesperson Malik Russell told The Root. "They’ve decided to abandon DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) responsibility to investigate racial, gender or disability discrimination complaints."
The NFB said in a press release that the manual's "new language provides that OCR personnel will dismiss complaints filed by an individual or organization who has filed a complaint before, as well as complaints against multiple colleges." They argued that the rule will only "make it difficult or impossible for the National Federation of the Blind and other advocates to bring violations to the attention of OCR."
"Apparently, vigilant advocates who face repeated discrimination and call it out are now considered troublemakers who are wasting the government’s valuable time," the NFB said.
What will come of the lawsuit is yet unclear. As of now, the new rules remain in place.