The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday announced the launch of the Outreach, Prevention, Education and Non-discrimination (OPEN) Center, aimed at supporting schools, educators, students and families in proactively complying with federal nondiscrimination laws, according to a press release.
“The OPEN Center underscores OCR’s efforts to support all schools and provide technical assistance to help them come into compliance with federal civil rights law prior to the filing of a complaint,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the release.
The center will focus on creating awareness of civil rights laws and supporting schools by offering ways for educators to voluntarily comply with anti-discrimination laws, getting in front of the problem rather than reacting when violations occur.
The move to support a more proactive approach follows scrutiny from student advocate groups in recent years over the department's handling of discrimination complaints. For example, while the OCR under the Trump administration has resolved nearly twice as many complaints as the Obama administration, some have pointed to a March 2018 revision of the office's case-processing manual encouraging investigators to dismiss multiple cases from "mass-filers," which may have inflated the number of resolutions.
After a complaint was filed about the practice, the OCR reversed the decision in November 2018. Even then, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) was still concerned the OCR wasn’t looking to fundamentally address systemic discrimination when evidenced by trends like "mass-filers."
The Trump administration also ended 1,200 civil rights investigations that began under the Obama administration over incidents due to insufficient evidence. These ranged in severity from discriminatory discipline to sexual violence.
The OCR under DeVos also is alleged to be more lenient on cases. During Obama’s final 15 months in office, 51% of the cases that took over 180 days ended in the finding of violations or corrective changes. During the first 15 months of the Trump administration, only 35% of such cases ended that way.