Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Letter to Secretary DeVos Re: the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights

The American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity is a signatory on the following letter to Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos by the Leadership Council:

Dear Secretary DeVos:

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse
membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and
human rights of all persons in the United States. We engage in legislative advocacy, were
founded in 1950 and have coordinated national lobbying efforts on behalf of every major
civil rights law since 1957. Members of The Leadership Conference represent Americans
who are African American, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Native American,
women, students, people with disabilities, seniors, young people, LGBTQ, immigrants,
members of labor unions and are people of many different faiths.

The Leadership Conference’s work is conducted primarily through our 15 task forces, which bring our members together around issues such as criminal justice, immigration, employment, health care and education. Our Education Task Force is co-chaired by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and comprised of Leadership Conference members who work together to achieve equity and support civil rights in education. It is in the name of this coalition that we offer the following recommendations regarding the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the agency’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

Every child has the right to attend a public school that is warm, welcoming, rigorous and that prepares them for success in life. Our bedrock civil rights laws, made meaningful through enforcement and oversight, stand guard to protect that right and ensure equal educational opportunity. Every day in too many schools, students experience discrimination based on who they are. Whether a transgender elementary school student in South Carolina is singled out by being forced to use a separate restroom or a restroom inconsistent with her gender; a college student in Maryland experiences a hostile response from administrators that exacerbates the pain of sexual assault; African-American students in Oklahoma are disproportionately suspended and arrested for school-related incidents for infractions as minor as disrespect or defiance of authority; noncitizen, immigrant students in Texas are unlawfully required to provide a social security card and a parent’s driver’s license to enroll in school; a Native American middle schooler is one of the 30 percent of American Indian students in the school referred for special education evaluation when only 10 percent of other students are referred; a Latino student or parent in New Mexico is harassed by staff and the district fails to investigate; or students with disabilities in California do not receive educational services required by their special education plans,[i]denial of educational opportunity on the basis of student characteristics is immoral and against the law. While educators and administrators across the country work hard every day to ensure that all of their students receive the education they deserve, there are still too many examples (as evidenced by the 76,000 complaints handled by the OCR from 2009 to 2016[ii]) of discrimination against individual students and groups of students on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, religion, immigration status, disability, gender or gender identity, and sexual orientation that result in vastly different educational opportunities.

The selection of an individual to lead OCR is one of the most significant decisions you and the president will make with regard to the civil rights of the nation’s students. Although other offices in the Department are responsible for enforcement of key civil rights laws such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Higher Education Act (HEA), OCR has a unique responsibility to enforce core nondiscrimination statutes in schools. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination in schools on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age. These laws were passed by Congress in response to the widespread denial of equal protection and equal opportunity by states, districts and schools. Although considerable progress has been made in the decades since these laws were passed, they continue to serve a vital function in the face of ongoing discrimination.

The full letter and list of signatories is available here.

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