Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reversing her stance on how the agency investigates civil rights complaints.
Education Week reports that, as of November 20th, the department is revising its Office of Civil Rights case-processing manual. Specifically, DeVos is backpedaling a recently-implemented instruction for investigators to dismiss multiple civil rights complaints if they originate from the same source.
Moreover, the OCR will open investigations into cases which were dismissed under DeVos’s past policy.
According to Education Week, the language disclosing so-called ‘mass filers’ from the OCR’s investigatory obligations has only been on the book since March. But the change had real repercussions for some civil rights advocates, including Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate from Michigan.
Over the course of the past two years, Lipsitt has sent more than 2,400 complaints to the Department of Education.
However, Lipsitt’s complaints weren’t frivolous—rather, she was drawing attention to educational entities whose websites couldn’t be used by blind, visually impaired or physically disabled persons.
The reversal, writes ABC News, has been taken as a victory by a coalition of civil rights groups which participated in the lawsuit. Among them are the NAACP, the National Federation of the Blind and the Council for Parent Advocates and Attorney.
The groups filed a legal complaint against the Department of Education over the summer, alleging that the agency was ignoring legitimate complaints so it could keep a short backlog.
CPAA attorney Denise Marshall said the department’s policy rescission “shows that recent legal action taken against them is working.”
But, as ABC notes, the suit isn’t quite over—attorneys are still working to ensure that DeVos’s decision becomes a permanent fixture for department policy.
Education Department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus reaffirmed that ensuring equal access to educational stays a “top priority.”
Marcus took over the Office for Civil Rights in June. In a statement, he explained that he decided to adjust the office’s investigative protocols after receiving “important and constructive feedback” on them.
“While we continue to work to improve the timeliness of OCR case processing, we have determined that additional revisions will help improve our work and allow us to be more responsive to students, stakeholders, and our staff,” he said.
Attorney Eve Hill, who’s representing civil rights groups in the suit against DeVos, cautions premature celebration. She believes the Department of Education’s decision to backtrack is a tactic designed to invalidate the case.
The roll-back, claims Hill, doesn’t amount to much more than a non-binding “promise” that can be taken back at a later date. Hill’s petitioned the presiding judge to allow the litigation to continue as expected. The best outcomes, ABC News recounts, are a settlement agreement or a ruling from a federal judge that block the government from changing its tune for a third or fourth time.
The NAACP said it’ll lend continuing support to its legal team in ensuring the new policy becomes permanent, and that the Department of Education is bound to investigate hundreds of cases it arbitrarily dismissed in March.
“The right to an equal education is fundamental to the principles of this country, and denying students the right to enforce their civil rights denies them the foundation they need to succeed and contribute to their communities,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said.