The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has launched a two-year investigation into the Trump administration, citing “grave concerns” over federal agencies’ apparent efforts to roll back civil rights protections.
This decision follows recent moves by the Trump administration that endanger or invalidate protections put in place during the Obama administration. Last week, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued a statement that directed its lawyers to evaluate discrimination cases regarding transgender students on a case-by-case basis; the Department of Justice announced that their lawyers could seek settlements without the use of consent decrees—which ensure parties to follow regulatory laws—and the Education Department announced that civil rights investigations were no longer mandatory to report, including complaints related to sexual assault on college campuses and the mistreatment of minority students. All of these developments will disproportionately harm the safety and well-being of women and minorities.
Among these troubling policies, however, the commission cites another grave concern: the remarks made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. That makes sense—her statements, for lack of a better phrase, really do say it all when it comes to the Trump administration’s fundamental disrespect for education equity and the rights of women, LGBTQ students and the poor.
#1: “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
Where to begin unraveling this one? This statement not only erases the fact that HBCUs were created due to the exclusion of African American students from white educational institutions—it also highlights Secretary DeVos’ disregard for education that benefits all students around the U.S. The National Education Policy Center found that “the overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.” The Secretary’s embrace of school choice indicates an ignorance of its impact as well as her own disregard for the rights of all students—no matter their race, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality or socioeconomic status.
#2: “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
When DeVos was asked if private schools should be required to only use private dollars, this was her response. She went on to claim that school choice leads to “greater Kingdom gain” and that public schools have “displaced the Church as the center of communities.” While private schools are not required to abide by the Constitution, public schools must. The Center for Public Education states that “board members and school administrators are required to allow personal acts of religious faith but to simultaneously avoid any appearance that religion (or any particular religion) enjoys special status uphold.” No matter her desires, the public schools DeVos is required to oversee are prohibited from becoming sites that “advance God’s kingdom.”
DeVos’ religious agenda may also explain her apathy toward LGBTQ students, which was also revealed in her confirmation hearing. When asked whether or not she would allow federal funds to go to schools that ban LGBTQ students or students with LGBTQ parents, DeVos simply returned to the notion of school choice as a solution. According to a Human Rights Campaign survey, LGBTQ students are harassed at school at twice the rate of non-LGBTQ youth. Harassment can come in the form of verbal and/or physical abuse, and with heightened rate of bullying and a lack of role models, LGBTQ students are predisposed to have more negative educational outcomes than non-LGBTQ youth. Her ignorance of the plight of these students contradicts her duty to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all children in the public school system.
#3: “I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim… as well as those who are accused.”
When asked whether or not she would commit to upholding the 2011 regulation on how sexual assault should be treated on college campuses, DeVos responded by empathizing with assailants. Dismantling Title IX’s impact on sexual assault policies is a cornerstone of the Trump agenda, and DeVos’ lack of support for victims of sexual assault fits right into the mold. Her statements on the matter threaten the well-being and lives of students. Secretary DeVos should be wholeheartedly supporting victims of sexual assault who feel threatened in their educational environment. Her lack of commitment to the welfare of students who were victims of sexual assault perpetuates a culture of patriarchal violence and hegemonic masculinity that excuses perpetrators for their crimes. In a country where one in five women will be sexually assaulted on campus, her remarks aren’t just offensive—they’re dangerous.
#4: “I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.”
Senator Tim Kaine asked a simple question of DeVos during her confirmation hearings: whether all schools should meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), signed into law in 1990 to guarantee free education to students with disabilities. DeVos deferred to the states, indicating an interest in leaving children in specific parts of the country without the support they need to complete their education. (According to the National Center of Education Statistics, during 6.6 million students ages 3 to 21—or 13 percent of all students—received special education services.) DeVos’ disregard for students with disabilities maintains a culture of separation and isolation for those children, and dooms them to unnecessary challenges in moving through the school system.
#5: “I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
When asked whether guns should be allowed on school grounds, DeVos thought of bears. Underneath the baffling context of this statement, however, was a strong indication that Secretary DeVos is unwilling to acknowledge the threat guns pose in school environments. A study conducted in 2002 by the Journal of America College Health found that students who owned guns were more likely to binge drink and engage in risky activities “such as driving when under the influence of alcohol, vandalizing property and having unprotected intercourse.” Many studies have also shown that guns on campus lead to more campus homicides and suicides. It is unclear why Secretary DeVos decided to defend the right to bring a gun to school by referencing a school in Wyoming that put up netting around their campus to protect their students from bears, and it’s even more unsettling that in a nation facing a gun violence epidemic—with incidences from Columbine to Sandy Hook putting students at the epicenter—DeVos could be so flippant when answering questions regarding the safety of students.