August 17, 2022

Betsy DeVos just took a hammer to Obama’s most important school policy

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Since President Trump took over the Department of Education, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has quickly closed more than 1,200 cases started under President Obama which lasted at least six months, according to a study by the nonprofit group ProPublica. 


The OCR has also dramatically decreased the number of investigations which resulted in a finding that corrective action is needed to address things like racial discrimination, sexual harassment and meeting the needs of disabled students. 

Under controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the scope of most investigations has been drastically limited and efforts to proactively address problems at schools, colleges and institutions have decreased significantly. 

Under Obama, the report finds, the OCR “took on more complex civil rights probes,” but now “DeVos has scaled back those investigations,” leading to the quick dismissal of hundreds of complaints.

In a comparison of the last 15 months of the Obama administration and the first 15 months under Trump, ProPublica found that about 35 percent of the cases investigated since DeVos arrived have resulted in a finding of a violation while under Obama about 51 percent led to corrective action or a determination there had been a violation. 

Under Obama, strong rules were written to ensure institutional fairness to all races, religions and other diversity groups.

That has changed under DeVos, who is currently reviewing “guidance meant to prevent black students from being punished more severely than their white peers,” writes ProPublica, “which critics fear will be rescinded.”

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The report cites DeSoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis, Tennessee, where corporal punishment is legal for things like acting out in class, skipping classes, tardiness, dress code violations or other forms of what is seen as insubordination.

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Under school district policy up to three “licks” per incident can be administered on the student’s buttocks, according to ProPublica, with “an appropriate instrument approved by the principal.”

Black students in that district are two and a half times more likely than whites to be punished.

That isn’t where it stops either.

While blacks make up 35 percent of students, they account for 55 percent of suspensions and expulsions, and more than 60 percent of referrals to law enforcement. 

As a result, some families there filed a federal complaint in 2015 with help from the Advancement Project, a national advocacy group, which led to a three-year investigation by the Department of Education.

This April, under DeVos, the investigation was shut down without a finding of any violations or need for corrective action due, according to the OCR to insufficient evidence.”

“This is indicative of how they are now evaluating and handling complaints,” said Kaitlin Banner, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project.

It isn’t just a matter of racial discrimination either, the report says.

For instance, under Obama, 70 percent of complaints about discrimination against students with limited English proficiency were upheld, compared to 52 percent under Trump.

When it comes to students with disabilities, 45 percent of complaints were upheld under Obama while only 34 percent require corrective action or result in a violation under Trump.

In regards to sexual harassment, under Obama, 45 percent of the claims were found to result in actions, while under Trump that is down to 31 percent.

“These differences reflect the contrasting approaches of the Obama and Trump administrations to civil rights enforcement, according to people familiar with both,” reports ProPublica.

“Under Obama,” continues the report, “the Office for Civil Rights looked into instances of discrimination against individuals, but also made it a priority to carry out more time-consuming and systemic investigations into disparate treatment of students based on race, disability, or other factors.”

Under Trump, the investigation is limited to just the specific complaint from the person who filed a claim without looking to see if itis part of a broader pattern.

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A spokesperson for the Education Department said they are still carefully examining every case but want to be more efficient and process claims more quickly.

Seth Galanter, a former senior official in the Education Department’s civil rights office under Obama, told ProPublica: “If all you see when you get a complaint is one kid and one dispute with a school, you will be able to resolve that — and maybe even in the kid’s favor — pretty quickly, but you are focusing on the needles and not the haystacks.” 

Decision making under Trump has also been decentralized. While under Obama, all final decisions had to be approved at the highest level, under DeVos many decisions are being made in the twelve regional offices.

As with much of what Trump does, the business side of education is now trumping how students are educated, treated and even how they are punished,

Once again the white, upper-class students and the schools they attend are the priority and the students of color, foreign students and those with disability are disadvantaged.

It is distressing to see what Trump and DeVos are doing but not surprising, and the chances of change are slim until there is a change in the Congress and White House that restores the American tradition of fair play, equal opportunity and a level playing field for all students and all Americans. 

Benjamin Locke

Benjamin Locke is a retired college professor with an undergraduate degree in Industrial Labor and Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the European School of Management.

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