Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) published a report on the work it has done under President Obama to fight for students’ access to education – and all that is left to do. OCR is charged with enforcing laws protecting students’ civil rights, including those that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and disability. Under the leadership of two bad ass women – Assistant Secretaries Russlyn Ali and Catherine Lhamon – OCR has pushed schools to be fairer and safer. As the report highlights, the office has made particularly robust progress in two areas we focus on here at the National Women’s Law Center: discriminatory student discipline and sexual harassment.
On a personal note, I’ll be particularly sad to see Assistant Secretary Lhamon step down at the end of President Obama’s term. I first got involved in education policy as a student organizer concerned about sexual assault on college campuses. And I’ll be honest: my fellow activists and I weren’t always happy with OCR, which we thought could do more to hold schools accountable for mistreating survivors. But Assistant Secretary Lhamon heard our concerns and implemented important changes, including increased transparency regarding OCR investigations. I appreciate that, during Assistant Secretary Lhamon’s tenure, OCR worked to push schools both to institute forward-looking structural changes and to support wronged survivors. Who knows how much they could have done if Congress had adequately funded the civil rights office.
We don’t know what the next administration’s approach to students’ civil rights will look like, but we do know we won’t stop fighting to protect and expand the legacy of President Obama’s OCR.