Reporters from ProPublica recently exposed how the Trump administration is attempting to quietly abandon key aspects of federal civil rights enforcement, including “verbal instructions” from senior leadership inside the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department to no longer seek consent decrees, which are agreements that are overseen and enforced by a court. As the ProPublica journalists correctly noted, these types of agreements have played a major role in the enforcement of federal civil rights protections, including “desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.”
While far from surprising, this is an abdication of a core responsibility of the federal government that cannot be allowed to go unanswered.
These problems are by no means limited to the Justice Department. As The New York Times has reported, the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education is “scaling back” its investigations at the nation’s public schools and universities. In particular, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — whose mission “is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools” — is eliminating requirements that identify system-wide areas of discrimination. This is something that is critically important, for example, in looking at the discriminatory use of school discipline, such as the misuse of suspensions and expulsions, and the impact it has on students of color and students with disabilities.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said this approach is designed to allow complaints to be addressed “much more efficiently and quickly.” If you’re not convinced by this excuse, you aren’t alone. The former head of the Office for Civil Rights said: “If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction we should go.” The government’s new approach is to prioritize speed over the need to conduct a thorough investigation.
Following these disturbing revelations, it’s no surprise that last week the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted unanimously to launch a two-year investigation into how the Trump administration is handling its civil rights enforcement responsibilities. The investigation will examine budget and staffing levels in federal agencies with responsibility for civil rights enforcement, their management practices, and the efficacy of the offices’ efforts. In addition, the commission, by a majority vote, issued a statement expressing grave concerns about the continuing signals that the Trump administration does not appropriately prioritize the protection and fulfillment of the civil rights of all people.
At a time when our federal government is heading in a disturbing direction that is hostile to civil rights, the role played by organizations like the ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund become all the more indispensable.
After the Trump administration shamefully withdrew critical guidance on protections for trans students under a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education earlier this year, the ACLU did not hesitate to make clear our commitment to protect the civil and constitutional rights of transgender students. Last week, the Office for Civil Rights issued new “instructions” on the handling of discrimination complaints from trans students. The original guidance provided important clarity to schools as well as trans students and their families. The new instructions failed to provide that same clarity and were needlessly confusing.
In responding, we made clear that while the Trump administration is more interested in shirking its responsibilities, federal courts are not, and their rulings are increasingly on the side of trans students. The ACLU will continue to go to court to protect the basic dignity and equality of trans students, regardless of how the Trump administration chooses to handle its responsibilities under Title IX.
The stakes are too high to allow the Trump administration to treat our nation’s civil rights laws like toothless relics from a bygone era. At the ACLU, we won’t let them get away with it.