Top OCR officials offer clarity on oversight in Trump Administration
- Two top officials from the Office of Civil Rights — Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary at the Department of Education, and Thomas E. Wheeler, acting assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice — laid out how enforcement and oversight would be managed in the Trump Administration, Inside Higher Education reported.
- At the National Association of College and University Attorneys annual meeting this past Tuesday, Jackson and Wheeler made it clear that they were committed to defending federal civil rights, but indicated that the way complaints will be handled is going to be different from the Obama administration.
- Wheeler and Jackson responded to critical claims regarding the protection of minorities and sexual assault victims, explaining that the OCR under the Obama administration had fallen into a pattern of backlogging cases as well as overreaching and harshly punishing institutions, rather than working with them to correct civil rights issues.
Since President Trump took office, many in the higher education space have been vocal about their concerns regarding how the Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights would handle civil rights filings. Recent moves by Secretary DeVos, specifically in the overturning of an Obama guidance aimed at protecting transgender students, have given the appearance that the administration would not handle all types of discrimination.
However, despite some of DeVos' policies, as well as statements on private institutions being exempt from having to protect LGBTQ students, DeVos has made it clear that she plans on enforcing civil rights laws, not only in higher education, but throughout K12 as well. Yet the back and forth between real action and talk has left administrators confused as to the type of balance the Department wants to achieve with regulatory oversight and actual enforcement.
Jackson and Wheeler cleared this concern up on Tuesday, much to the satisfaction of attending lawyers and administrators, as the two described a role for the OCR that would be much different from the head-on approach of the Obama administration. Under Obama, the OCR took a rather aggressive stance, continuously releasing new guidances on the responsibilities of schools and districts, as well as ratcheting up its investigations into sexual assault cases on campus. Though civil rights advocates saw the OCR's efforts then as moving in the right direction, administrators at all levels saw these actions as a form of overreach.
Wheeler and Jackson's stance of collaboration, rather than aggressive confrontation and punishment, was something administrators and the lawyers were happy to hear. Though in the long run, as Republicans seek to give much of the authority of enforcement back to the states, particularly for private institutions, administrators may find that their biggest battles may actually come with state legislatures.
- Inside Higher Ed ‘A New Day at OCR’
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