Civil Rights Slow Walk?

Trump wants to cut staffing at OCR, already facing a backlog of Title IX and other complaints, by 7 percent.

June 6, 2017
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying to House appropriators.
(Getty Images)

When students file a complaint that their institution mishandled or ignored claims of sexual assault or harassment, they can often expect to wait years for a resolution from the Department of Education. Those delays frustrate not only those bringing the complaints but colleges that remain under prolonged investigation as well.

Advocates say that problem would be exacerbated by cuts to staffing at the department's Office for Civil Rights included in last month's White House budget proposal. Under the Obama administration, OCR took on an increasingly prominent role in responding to sexual assaults on campus -- and in pressuring colleges and universities themselves to take more aggressive action on the issue. The budget maintains level funding for the office but calls for reducing full-time staffing by 7 percent to 523 employees.

That reduction is part of broader changes proposed throughout federal agencies to eliminate or cut back the role of offices designated to monitor and sanction discrimination.

Laura Dunn, the executive director of SurvJustice, said the organization was already waiting an average of four years for the resolution of complaints it filed under the Obama administration. And that was an administration that made addressing the issue of campus assaults a priority, she said.

Dunn said students and advocates could expect to wait even longer for the department to act on complaints if staffing at OCR is reduced further.

"I think that is a known outcome from the department's perspective," she said. "They know that they can't complete these investigations with such a lean budget and inadequate staffing."

As of last year, the backlog of federal Title IX investigations into mishandling of sexual assault or harassment allegations by colleges and universities exceeded 300 cases. By the time of Trump's election, 216 open investigations remained of sexual assault cases alone.

While the number of complaints filed shot up exponentially between 2011 and 2016 -- possibly as a result of the greater spotlight on the issue of campus sexual assaults -- staffing levels at OCR have declined steadily over the last four decades through Republican and Democratic administrations, although they saw an uptick under Obama.

A 2018 budget justification document estimated that a 2016 ratio of 41 cases per staff member will likely continue.

Dunn said slower enforcement would encourage more survivors of assault to seek remedy through the courts. Meanwhile, many would graduate or otherwise leave college without seeing their treatment by their institution addressed. Often, slow enforcement of complaints has meant survivors have had to pay out of pocket for outside counseling after being denied those services on campus.

"Everyone who is filing these complaints wants to have their campus treat them with dignity and respect. They want the normal college experience," she said. "Obviously, in a perfect world, these complaints would be resolved while a student is still in school."

Dunn noted that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has yet to meet with victims' rights organizations (although she has met with a Georgia state representative suing the department over its Title IX guidance). She said reducing staffing is a backdoor way of curtailing the department's role in tackling Title IX issues without issuing new policy.

In one of the department's first steps under the new administration, DeVos reversed guidance issued under Obama to protect the rights of transgender students. The secretary said the guidance had given rise to numerous legal questions and that the issue was better dealt with at the state level. Many experts expect the Trump administration to also scale back use of Title IX to deal with campus sexual assaults. Republican lawmakers have argued that the Obama administration illegally expanded the scope of anti-discrimination law and added greater liability for institutions that fail to deal with bullying, harassment or assaults.

Speculation on a new policy has focused on the possible repeal of Dear Colleague letters issued by the department under Obama directing campuses to take stronger action on sexual assault. But the department hasn't yet signaled a new approach on the issue.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the budget proposal does not include plans for layoffs. Instead, staff cuts would be made through attrition, which is typically around 10 percent.

"Secretary DeVos is committed to the mission of the Office for Civil Rights," Hill said. Under DeVos's leadership, she said, the office's funding was kept level in the agreement Congress reached in April to fund the federal government through September. "And Secretary DeVos is keenly focused on OCR’s core mission to protect students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age. We do not expect the budgetary impact on staff to have a negative effect on the department’s ability to expeditiously and impartially review cases."

Hill added that DeVos has already directed OCR and other offices within the department to proactively reach out to organizations that advocate for victims’ rights. OCR staff has met with Girls Inc. and is scheduled to meet with the National Women's Law Center. DeVos has also met with representatives from GLSEN, which advocates on LGBT issues in the K-12 education system, Hill said. 

Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the proposed cuts to OCR would exacerbate the length of time required to solve Title IX cases and devastate the morale of the work force.

As head of OCR under Obama, Lhamon was a key figure in pushing colleges and universities to take a more active role in addressing and publicizing misconduct. The Obama administration's 2017 budget proposal sought to reduce OCR assignments to 19 cases per staff member. Lhamon said the persistent caseload level estimated in the Trump budget -- 41 cases per staff -- was untenable.

"It is not possible to perform the job under those kinds of demands," she said.

The results, Lhamon said, could mean more than longer wait times -- work on investigations would be less effective and the department could close cases that shouldn't be.

She said the Trump administration would need a dramatic course correction to demonstrate that it is serious about civil rights work.

"A budget like this sends a strong negative message to communities and students about the importance of civil rights across the board," she said. "If this budget proposal were enacted, the president and Congress would have imposed substantial harm on the nation."

(Note: Because of incorrect information from the department, this article originally misstated the victims' rights groups that have met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has met with victims' rights advocates. The article has been updated.) 

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Andrew Kreighbaum

Andrew Kreighbaum joins Inside Higher Ed as our federal policy reporter. Andrew comes to us from The Investigative Reporting Workshop. He received his master's in data journalism at the University of Missouri, and has interned at USA Today and a national journalism institute in Columbia, MO. Before getting his master's, Andrew spent three years covering government and education at local papers in El Paso, McAllen and Laredo, Texas. He graduated in 2010 from the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in history and was news editor at The Daily Texan.

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