Earlier today, I, along with my Law Center colleagues, met with Candice Jackson, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Jackson has been on the job barely two months, and the little that is known about her raises some flags.
So, why did we meet with her?
Well, for one, to ask her boss to check her inbox. Secretary Betsy DeVos still has not responded to a months-old request to meet with survivors and allied organizations to talk about continuing to enforce the law and preserving guidance on how schools should address sexual violence—even though DeVos has met with local elected officials hostile to survivors and Title IX. This June marks the 45th anniversary of Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in school and requires schools to address sexual harassment (including sexual assault). Maybe she can help convince her boss that sometime this month would be the perfect time to meet with survivors and allied organizations and publicly commit to preserving protections for survivors.
But beyond that, Jackson holds an influential position within the Department of Education—even if it is in just an acting role. Historically, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights leads the Department’s enforcement of civil rights laws that guarantee equal educational opportunities regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, national origin, and disability. And it’s a role she can hold for up to 210 days without Senate confirmation, so there’s a lot she can do in that time.
So, we met with her and others at OCR to share the Center’s expertise and civil rights concerns that we’re hearing from girls and women across the country. You see, despite our criticism of DeVos, we will use every opportunity to push her to do the right thing for students. After all, she’s come from saying states and schools could opt out of protecting students’ federal civil rights to at least acknowledging that schools that get federal funds must follow federal law. It’s a small step in the right direction and we can’t stop now. We must make sure she doesn’t backtrack and we must continue to advocate.
So, what did we talk about in our meeting with Ms. Jackson?
First and foremost, we emphasized that discrimination is a real and serious issue that can interfere with a student’s ability to learn and feel safe or welcome in school. We hear from too many girls and women who have been deprived of their basic right to equal educational opportunities. Black girls who are unfairly suspended for vague, subjective reasons or for wearing braids or natural hairstyles [PDF]. Pregnant students who are told to choose between the health of their unborn child or repeating the semester. Institutions who ignore the threat a sexual assailant poses to other students on campus.
When schools don’t take their civil rights duties seriously, they create a hostile environment that pushes kids out of the classroom year after year. And although courts can provide a remedy for some, others may not be able to afford the financial or emotional toll of litigation. That’s why the Department must make sure that they not only thoroughly investigate and resolve OCR complaints, but also take steps to prevent discrimination in the first place. One way to help ensure that schools don’t discriminate is through departmental guidance that helps schools understand how to fulfill their civil rights obligations to students. In that vein, we urged Jackson to preserve the 2011 Title IX sexual violence guidance. The guidance has drawn the ire of men’s rights activists for saying that schools must address sexual assault and discipline a student if it’s more likely than not that they committed sexual misconduct. These arguments ignore that the guidance is supported by both legal precedent [PDF] and public opinion. A recent NWLC poll found that 87% of voters supported the guidance, and an even wider margin (94%) agree with the guidelines for when a student should be disciplined. When Betsy DeVos rescinded the transgender guidance earlier this year, it sent the shameful message that the Department would do nothing to protect the rights of trans kids. In our meeting, we made clear that doing the same for the sexual violence guidance would not only be as cruel, but would also result in political consequences for the Department.
Finally, we told Jackson we care about transparency—so much that we’re willing to make a federal case out of it (although we didn’t discuss our lawsuit, and separately heard back from the Department today with the beginning of the info we asked for!). When we say we want to know how the Department is handling discrimination complaints we mean it. Students, parents and advocates deserve to know how the government is addressing sexual assault in schools. In other words, we’re watching. And although we were at the table today, as always, we’re not afraid to challenge the Department and be a thorn in its side if they do the wrong by students.