One of the biggest responsibilities of the Department of Education is to examine equity issues with regard to issues like race, gender, disabilities or religious affiliation. As one could imagine, it takes a lot of resources for the Department of Education to investigate all of the claims and complaints it receives over the course of the year.
In a stroke of genius, Betsy DeVos has come up with a creative way to tackle the caseload: Summary dismissal of claims.
A complaint is a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients or a complaint(s) is filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.
This provision is worded in such a way that makes it sound rather benign if not even practical, but there are three critical problems with this new procedure:
1. The Department of Education is not allowed to pick and choose.
The Office for Civil Rights is not the Supreme Court or Department of Justice. Unlike those two entities, the Office for Civil Rights is not supposed to “pick and choose” which cases it handles. If there is sufficient evidence a law has been broken, then a case needs to be opened.
2. It targets advocates and advocacy groups.
According to the Department of Education, the new changes are meant to unclog the complaint docket by allowing them to prioritize or ignore claims from “frequent fliers.” This includes people or organizations that submit a large number of claims to the Office for Civil Rights. The problem is these people and groups are working on behalf of others. Submitting a civil rights claim takes time, resources and know-how that the most vulnerable people often don’t have. The only way many of these people can access the system of justice is to work through a person or group who specializes in such matters.
By targeting “frequent fliers” in the system, the Department of Education is cutting off access to people without means to file these claims themselves. According to the New York Times, the provision has already led to the dismissal of 500 disabilities rights complaints.
3. This is compounded by other changes that already make it more difficult for affected groups.
The Department of Education is claiming this change is to lighten the load of the department. Since DeVos has taken over the Department of Education, she already created or rescinded a host of other regulations that should have done just that.
They have already reversed the Obama-era policy on sexual assault. They have already rescinded over 70 documents that outline the rights of disabled students. They have already rescinded some guidance documents in regard to minority students and they are currently considering rescinding even more.
With the amount of scaling back the Department of Education has been doing, they shouldn’t have any capacity issues. Additionally, all of the scaling back, combined with throwing out claims from advocacy groups all but ensures many students with legitimate claims will be left in the dark.
There is a student in my class I can always count on to tell on other students when they do something wrong. He loves to point out bullying, even when someone else is the victim. While his tattletale nature is annoying, most of the time his complaints and gripes about other students are legitimate reports of rule violations. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to simply ignore him simply because I’m tired of hearing him tattle, but unfortunately this is the line of logic DeVos is taking with this new provision.
While it is certainly possible for government agencies to get too bloated and redundant, the Office for Civil Rights is not where DeVos should be trimming the fat, especially not in the manner that she is going about it. It is plausible that some overzealous advocate is clogging the docket with similar sounding claims, but that doesn’t mean those claims aren’t valid or shouldn’t be heard.