Like many federal agencies, the Department of Education is reversing course on some Obama Administration priorities. In the DOE's case, that means fewer civil rights investigations into public schools and university, according to an internal memo obtained by ProPublica.
According to the Times, the new leadership says the Obama-era mandates have bogged down the department. The affected civil rights enforcement mandates included, for example:
- Broadening inquiries in order to identify systemic issues and classes of victims
- Regional offices being required to notify Washington on sensitive issues such as disproportionate discipline and campus sexual assault
The mandates have gotten results. In some cases, systemic discrimination in school districts was uncovered. Other cases resulted in the overhaul of a number of institutions' policies to address civil rights concerns.
The approach also sent the number of civil rights complaints soaring. The office wasn't staffed to handle the increased demand for investigations, so it was often unable to meet its own goal of closing each case within 180 days.
A spokesperson for the department said that skyrocketing demand for services and a backlog which "exploded" demanded some sort of change. The new guidelines are meant to ensure each complaint gets the attention it deserves.
"Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long," the spokesperson said in a statement.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expresses 'grave concerns'
The change in policy is not without its critics, including the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is an independent, bipartisan agency that advises the president and Congress on civil rights issues. It voted recently to initiate a two-year investigation into federal civil rights enforcement generally, citing "grave concerns" about the Trump Administration's civil rights agenda. The Education Department is said to be of special concern.
The new head of the Civil Rights Commission, in fact, was an assistant secretary of Education for civil rights under Obama. She referred to the new process as "assembly-line justice."
On the other hand, some advocates believe that civil rights investigation and enforcement under the Obama Administration was too aggressive and didn't protect districts and universities sufficiently. One referred to the proceedings as "kangaroo courts."