Even if you don’t have kids of your own or don’t care about kids at all, at some point you’ve been a student. So, you should know about the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the important work it does to protect all students from discrimination. OCR is also where I once worked, so I’m very invested in making sure everyone understands what they do and why we need someone like Catherine Lhamon to lead the office as the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
To succeed in school, students must feel safe, welcomed, and supported. That means their civil rights need to be protected, and OCR plays a role, if not the biggest role, in ensuring that happens. And Catherine Lhamon is undoubtedly who we need, especially at this moment, to lead OCR.
Catherine Lhamon has tons, I mean tons, of experience that makes her perfect for this role. First, she led OCR from 2013 to 2017, so she’s already done this job and knows OCR very well. She’s also been the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and more recently, the Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity, so she has a lot of experience in the federal government advocating for civil rights. She also worked as a Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Gavin Newsom and spent decades in legal services at the ACLU of the Southern California, Public Counsel, and the National Center for Youth Law. Catherine has built her career on championing for civil rights. And I didn’t get to the many accolades and awards she’s received. On a personal level, having worked at OCR when Catherine was there, I also appreciate how sharp, quick-witted, and friendly she is.
For those of you who are not very familiar with OCR, here are some things to know about the office:
OCR enforces civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in schools based on race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, parenting status, pregnancy, and related medical conditions), disability, and age.
This includes ensuring students are not harassed for discriminatory reasons or attend schools where Black and/or disabled students are more often punished than other students; that don’t provide accommodations to students with disabilities; that fail to respond to bullying of LGTBQ students; that exclude girls from STEM programs; or that ignore students who experience sexual harassment. Just to name a few of the issues OCR addresses.
OCR has 12 regional offices all over the country that investigate complaints of discrimination in schools. These offices have produced important agreements with schools, forcing schools to change their policies and practices to create welcoming, safe, and nondiscriminatory environments for students.
OCR issues policy and guidance addressing students’ civil rights.
This has gotten a lot of attention during the Trump Administration because when Betsy DeVos came in to lead the Department of Education, she quickly weakened many civil rights policies, some that even existed for decades. Throughout the years, OCR has issued policy guidance through “Dear Colleague Letters,” technical assistance documents that clarify policy, or regulations that are legally binding – to inform schools and other stakeholders about the civil rights of school employees and students, including how schools must respond to harassment, affirmative action, school discipline, needs of students with disabilities, sexual violence, gender inclusion in career and technological education, athletics, and LGBTQ rights.
OCR collects data to understand how students experience discrimination.
OCR has a biennial civil rights data collection (CRDC) that has been vital in getting information about students’ experiences in K-12 schools, including data about enrollment demographics, harassment, racially discriminatory discipline practices, restraint and seclusion of students, school staff and salaries, and school expenditures, among other issues. This data has been critical for raising awareness on issues of educational equity.
OCR has a lot of work to do to restore the damage done to students’ civil rights under Betsy DeVos’ leadership, and Catherine Lhamon is the best person to lead that effort.
The years under the Trump Administration were quite damaging. When DeVos came in, she quickly rescinded policy guidance addressing the rights of transgender students that was issued under Catherine’s leadership. This was guidance that my colleagues at OCR had worked so hard on for years, and that I had the privilege to work on (a little bit) soon before it was issued. It sent a clear message that OCR was not in the business of protecting civil rights. Then soon after came the weakening of protections against sexual harassment in schools, racially discriminatory discipline, affirmative action, and the list goes on. And the COVID-19 pandemic has not only revealed the gross disparities in education, but has exacerbated them.
It’s undeniable that we need a strong champion for civil rights to lead OCR – and someone who understands how the federal agency works – to be able to quickly restore and strengthen anti-discrimination protections for all students. As Catherine so pointedly said at yesterday’s hearing before the Senate HELP Committee, “[a]s this nation recovers from the global pandemic and our students and educators return to schools together, the beautiful civil rights promises Congress has long made for us have particular importance. OCR’s work now is as urgent as it ever has been.”
There’s no one more suited for the job at this moment than Catherine Lhamon. This is why you need to tell your Senators to #ConfirmLhamon.