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Congressional Tri-Caucus Voices Concerns About Student Civil Rights

Jul 7, 2017
Press Release
In letter to Education Secretary DeVos, 64 lawmakers urge greater commitment to civil rights
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of the Congressional Tri-Caucus – composed of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) – sent a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Elizabeth DeVos to voice serious concerns about the Trump Administration’s lack of commitment to protecting the civil rights of the nation’s students.
 
In a letter sent to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today, the group of 64 lawmakers wrote: “This Administration’s proposed budget and staffing cuts for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and the repeal of important civil rights policy guidance, signals, at best, a troubling hands off approach to protecting the civil rights of students across the country and, at worse, a complete undermining of the equal protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
 
“We urge your administration to not just commit to protecting the civil rights of all students in this country but to also do so proactively and with the utmost urgency.”
 
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is the main agency by which students can seek justice when a school or state has failed to ensure equal protection of the law. The Office exists to ensure that all students have access to an education free from discrimination, harassment, and violence.
 
Specifically, the lawmakers cited reduced funding for the Office for Civil Rights in Trump’s budget request, the rollback of guidance clarifying protections for transgender students, and noncommittal answers offered to members of Congress as evidence that DeVos is failing to protect students and fulfill the mission of the agency she leads.
 
Full text of the letter is below.  In addition to Rep. Cedric Richmond, Chair, Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Chair, Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Rep. Judy Chu, Chair, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the following lawmakers also signed onto the letter:
 
Senator Corey Booker
Senator Kamala D. Harris
Senator Mazie K. Hirono                                                             
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Senator Brian Schatz                                                                      
Senator Robert Menendez 
Senator Tammy Duckworth                                                        
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham  
Rep. Judy Chu                                                                                   
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond
Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr.                                                            
Rep. Jackie Speier 
Rep. Tony Cárdenas                                                         
Rep. Mark Takano  
Rep. Jerry McNerney                                                     
Rep. Ben Ray Luján   
Rep. Raúl Grijalva                                                                       
Rep. Grace Napolitano   
Rep. Norma Torres                                                                      
Rep. Albio Sires   
Rep. Ruben Kihuen                                                          
Rep. José E. Serrano
Rep. Juan Vargas                                                                          
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa                                                                  
Rep. Joaquin Castro
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge                                                       
Rep. Dwight Evans 
Rep. Barbara Lee                                                               
Rep. Val Butler Demings 
Rep. G.K. Butterfield                                                      
Rep. Robin Kelly 
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings                                                                   
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman 
Rep. Joyce Beatty                                                             
Rep. William. Lacy Clay Jr. 
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton                                          
Rep. Karen Bass 
Rep. Anthony Brown                                                      
Rep. John Conyers Jr.  
Rep. Zoe Lofgren                                                             
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard    
Rep. Brenda Lawrence                                                                  
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks     
Rep. Frederica S. Wilson                                                   
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II     
Rep. A. Donald McEachin                                                   
Rep. Alma Adams     
Rep. Adam Smith                                                             
Rep. Ted W. Lieu     
Rep. Pramila Jayapal                                                                       
Rep. Danny K. Davis     
Rep. Susan A. Davis                                                        
Rep. Ro Khanna     
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester                                                
Rep. Gwen S. Moore      
Rep. J. Luis Correa                                                                                
Rep. Yvette D. Clarke  
Rep. John Lewis                                                                                     
Rep. Jerrold Nadler   
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries                                                              
Rep. Al Green  
Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr.                                                                       
Rep. David Scott                             
 
 
July 5, 2017
 
The Honorable Elizabeth DeVos
Secretary
United States Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C 20202
 
Dear Secretary DeVos,
 
We write to you today deeply concerned about the Trump Administration’s lack of commitment to protecting the civil rights of the nation’s students. This Administration’s proposed budget and staffing cuts for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and the repeal of important civil rights policy guidance, signals, at best, a troubling hands off approach to protecting the civil rights of students across the country and, at worse, a complete undermining of the equal protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. We urge your administration to not just commit to protecting the civil rights of all students in this country but to also do so proactively and with the utmost urgency.
 
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all people in the United States equal protection under the law and Congress has enacted civil rights laws to provide for the enforcement of that protection and ensure intervention by the federal government when that right is violated. In 2017, 60 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, we find ourselves still seeking to make the promise of the Constitution real. Through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Education Amendments of 1972, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Congress has worked to protect students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and disability. The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education has been tasked under the Education Organization Act of 1979 with carrying out Congress’ intent in this regard. In addition, the United States Supreme Court has held that all children, regardless of immigration status, are guaranteed access to a free public education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
 
As an extension of Congressional authority, OCR is the vehicle through which students can seek justice when the school or the state has failed to ensure equal protection. Its mission is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.”[1] This enforcement has helped to ensure that all students have access to an education free from discrimination, harassment, and violence. These functions must not only be protected but allowed to operate to their fullest capacity to guarantee all students equal protection under the law.
 
Although it is the job of OCR to step in and enforce the federal protections within the Constitution, it is the responsibility of the President’s Administration to support the work of OCR. This is done through the nomination of an official to lead the office that has a demonstrated record of active support for federal civil rights law and marginalized communities, robust funding for OCR in the President’s budget request, and continuation of policy guidance that clarifies schools’ obligations to ensure all students have equal access to education regardless of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, first language, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
           
The Trump Administration has failed to provide the support necessary for the OCR to meet its enforcement obligations the reduced funding for OCR proposed in the President’s FY2018 education budget, the rollback of guidance clarifying protections for transgender students, and noncommittal answers offered to Members of the House of Representatives and Senate signal your lack of commitment to protecting all students and fulfilling the mission of the agency you lead.
           
Although you stated affirmatively in your testimony before the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee that recipients of federal funds must follow federal law, we urge you to turn these words into action. You have authority as the Secretary of Education to make sure that every school receiving federal funds follows our nation’s civil rights laws and protects students from discrimination.
 
We urge you to reconsider recent guidance issued to OCR that rescinds mandates requiring investigators to address systemic school climate issues and also to alert officials of urgent complaints on issues such as the disproportionate disciplining of minority students and the mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses. OCR has played a critical role in investigating school discipline policies, which disproportionately affects African-American boys and girls. It is impossible to address justice on a case by case basis, as this recent guidance urges the OCR to do. The OCR’s work gets to the heart of systemic issues affecting students across the country, and this work needs to be allowed to continue. Secondly, we urge you to preserve the scope, frequency, and public accessibility of the data collected through the Civil Rights Data Collection. This tool allows policymakers, parents, educators, and the public greater insight into a number of equity and accessibility issues, such as the use of exclusionary school discipline. Lastly, we urge you to maintain the current policy guidance issued by OCR, especially with regard to campus sexual assault, the rights of undocumented students, and schools’ obligations to students with disabilities.
           
Every student deserves a chance to learn, explore their talents, and be successful regardless of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, first language, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. OCR has done important work to ensure that this is a reality—and this work needs to continue. We respectfully urge you to act on our requests, to indicate not only to Congress but to students and families across the country that the administration takes their civil rights and protections seriously. The Department must proactively support schools to prevent discrimination and intervene when the law is broken. Our students need and deserve action.
 
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The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), founded in December 1976, is organized as a Congressional Member organization, governed under the Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. The CHC is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Rico and U.S. Territories.
 
Media Contact:
Carlos Paz Jr.
202-525-0053