Published: Mon, June 19, 2017
USA | By Kelli Rowe

OCR Changes Investigation Protocols for Civil Rights Complaints

OCR Changes Investigation Protocols for Civil Rights Complaints

The commission expressed concern about staff reductions in the civil rights offices at the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as about changes at other agencies. And investigators should avoid rejecting gender harassment allegations in a complaint, even if they have dismissed allegations involving "denial of access to restrooms based on gender identity". "That guidance provided clarity to schools, as well as to transgender students and their parents", James Esseks, the director of the ACLU's LGBT and HIV Project, said in a statement.

A memo from the Department of Education on handling of transgender civil rights complaints instructs officials to continue investigating those complaints as they would have before 2016 guidance issued by the Obama administration.

Restroom access is not among the specific issues listed as appropriate for federal investigation, and is offered as an example of a type of case that might be dismissed.

The Obama administration called on school districts to treat a student's gender identity as their sex and to treat students in a way consistent with their gender identities, including when it came to bathrooms and locker rooms.

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"These new instructions from the Department of Education are far from clear, and federal court rulings are increasingly on the side of transgender students", Esseks added, implying that the organization may pursue further lawsuits to challenge the new guidance.

But what happens if a transgender student's complaint is handled by an official who does not believe bathroom access is an issue worthy of investigation?

In the Department of Education, the commission says the proposed budget and staffing cuts in the Office for Civil Rights will affect those filing complaints based on sex, race, and other specially protected class categories.

"Along with changing programmatic priorities, these proposed cuts would result in a unsafe reduction of civil rights enforcement across the country, leaving communities of color, LGBT people, older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups exposed to greater risk of discrimination", the commission wrote in a statement announcing the investigation.

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"The Commission has grave concerns about continuing signals from the current Administration, including the President's proposed budget and statements of Cabinet and senior Administration officials, that the protection and fulfillment of civil rights of all persons will not be appropriately prioritized", reads the statement, which commissioners approved on a 6 to 2 vote, with both Republicans dissenting. That issue has been a key one at some colleges and in state legislation. A lingering worry for opponents is that the emphasis on efficiency and speed may arrive at the expense of thorough investigations, something the Department of Education can not do without. "Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long", she said.

The Department of Education under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issues the new instructions after DeVos and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the Obama-era guidance during the early months of the Trump administration. "At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights".

As the Times noted, DOE investigations soared after Barack Obama's administration put an emphasis on systemic reviews and major reforms at school districts and colleges. The president's proposed budget would result in a loss of 46 positions from the Office of Civil Rights, a 7 percent cut.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights - an independent and bipartisan federal agency whose eight members must be split evenly by party and are appointed by the President (4), Senate (2) and House (2) - has launched a two-year investigation into the Trump administration's civil rights enforcement. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement Thursday.

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