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Internal ED Memo Shows Changes to OCR Enforcement Practices

An internal memorandum to U.S. Department of Education (ED) staff, obtained by the government watchdog organization ProPublica, would significantly change how the agency’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) handles various complaints. 

The memo, signed by Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson and sent to regional directors on June 8th, makes several immediate changes to OCR policy.  Among them, there are no longer to be any “sensitive cases” which call for the involvement of OCR staff in Washington.  Instead, those cases must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if they warrant the intervention of high-ranking ED staff.

Under previous policy, individual complaints related to complex issues like school discipline or sexual harassment might have triggered broader probes to determine whether the alleged incidents were part of a broader pattern of discrimination or harassment.  Under the new policy, a broader investigation will only be triggered if the original allegations raise systemic concerns.  In addition, OCR will no longer require entities under investigation to provide three years of past complaint data files.  Instead, the investigative team will determine what comparative data is needed to determine whether there was a pattern of problematic conduct. 

These instructions, the memo says, are intended to “empower” investigative staff to “clear backlogs and resolve complaints within a reasonable timeframe.”

But in a statement to the press, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) criticized the move.  "President Trump and his Administration can claim to oppose discrimination all they want, but actions speak louder than words—and everything they are doing is making it clear that they want to defang and weaken the federal government's tools to protect the civil rights and safety of people across the country," Murray said.  "If true, this would help clarify why Secretary DeVos is calling for major cuts to the Office for Civil Rights: because she simply doesn't want it to do as much to protect students."

The OCR memorandum is available here.

Alyson Klein, “Report the DeVos Will Limit Civil Rights Probes Alarms Top Senate Democrat,” Education Week: Politics K-12, June 15, 2017.

About the Author

Julia Martin is an attorney with the Washington, DC law firm of Brustein & Manasevit, PLLC. Established in 1980, the Firm is nationally recognized for its federal education regulatory and legislative practice, providing legal advice regarding compliance with all major federal education programs as well as the federal grants management requirements, including the Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR). In addition, they work with agencies on federal spending flexibility, allowability, policies and procedures, audit defense and resolution and legislative updates. The Firm provides government relations services for the National Title I Association.