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Dept. of Ed.’s OCR to Scale Back Title IX Investigations

The OCR’s new approach is aimed at decreasing the amount of time it takes to investigate schools and colleges for Title IX violations.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will scale back its practice of looking for systemic issues during Title IX and other civil rights investigations into schools and universities.

In an internal memo, OCR Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson wrote “…OCR will only apply a “systemic” or “class-action” approach where the individual complaint allegations themselves raise systemic or class-wide issues or the investigative team determines a systemic approach is warranted through conversations with the complainant.”

The memo also announced the OCR will no longer always obtain three years of past complaint data from an institution during investigations.

“There is no longer a “one size fits all” approach to the investigation of any category of complaints… it is the [OCR] investigative team’s responsibility… to determine on a case-by-case basis the type and scope of evidence that is necessary to support a legally sound investigation and determination,” the memo states.

The change is part of the Department of Education’s effort to decrease the time it takes the OCR to process investigations and was revealed the same day an independent commission announced it is investigating the Trump administration’s enforcement of civil rights.

The OCR’s changes, first reported by ProPublica June 16, mark a fundamental shift in the way the office approaches Title IX complaints since the Obama administration expanded it’s role in 2011.

In a statement addressing the changes, Department of Education Press Secretary Elizabeth Hill noted the time it takes for the OCR to investigate potential violations has “skyrocketed” in recent years while investigators review years of data for each case.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long,” Hill said. “These internal enforcement instructions seek to clear out the backlog [of cases] while giving every complaint the individualized and thorough consideration it deserves. There is no longer an artificial requirement to collect several years of data when many complaints can be adequately addressed much more efficiently and quickly.”

But many groups condemned the changes, claiming the new system will favor efficiency over justice and fail to hold schools accountable for systemic flaws that result in repeated civil rights violations or hostile environments.

“[The OCR’s new approach] is really a way of curtailing the way civil rights enforcement should be handled,” Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary of the OCR during the Obama administration, told the New York Times. “It’s literally a stick your head in the sand approach.”

The same day the OCR changes were reported, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted to open a two-year investigation into the Trump administration’s civil rights enforcement.

Lhamon heads that commission, highlighting the difference in civil rights enforcement between the Trump and Obama administrations. In February, the Trump administration withdrew Obama-era federal guidance allowing students to use the school bathrooms that match their gender identity.

The OCR has been investigating institutions’ policies and processes for handling Title IX complaints since a monumental 2011 Dear Colleague Letter was issued to address the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual violence on college campuses.

But many reports and advocate groups have indicated the OCR is understaffed and has been overwhelmed by its caseload in recent years. The Department of Education has set a goal of closing civil rights investigations within 180 days, but since 2011 the average case duration has been 1.7 years.

A recently released report shows the number of sexual violence complaints submitted to the OCR increased from 11 in 2009 to 164 in 2015, yet the OCR’s staffing levels hit an all-time low in 2015.

President Trump has proposed further cuts to the OCR in his 2018 budget that would eliminate 46 full-time employees, or eight percent of its remaining staff.

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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