Education Department Opens New Civil Rights Center to Help Schools, Students

January 22, 2020 Updated: January 22, 2020

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office launched a new initiative designed to help schools, educators, and students understand and apply education civil rights laws, Secretary Betsy DeVos said Jan. 21.

The Outreach, Prevention, Education and Nondiscrimination Center, or OPEN Center, will be housed in the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which reviews and investigates civil rights complaints. The new center will focus on providing technical assistance to schools and guidance to the public to help them avoid civil rights violations.

“The OPEN Center is all about strengthening civil rights compliance through voluntary, proactive activities,” Kenneth L. Marcus, an assistant secretary at the department, said in Tuesday’s news release. “Instead of waiting for violations to occur before responding, OCR will get in front of the problem, partnering with educators and other institutions to better protect students. As the name implies, we want to be a better resource, more welcoming and supportive of students, families, educators, and communities.”

The Education Department’s OCR is responsible for ensuring equal access to education through the enforcement of federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. The agency issues nonbinding guidelines on how the civil rights laws apply to issues in schools including admissions, class assignment, grading, athletics, employment, discipline, bullying, and sexual harassment.

Last July, the OCR released data that showed its investigators were resolving civil rights complaints at nearly twice the rate as they were during the Obama administration. During fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the OCR resolved 16,000 complaints per year on average, compared to an average of 8,200 complaints resolved annually during the previous administration.

Under a new OCR guideline (pdf) for probing civil rights cases, the scope of the investigation has been narrowed. For example, complaints from transgender students regarding access to bathrooms and locker rooms, as well as a range of other complaints of anti-transgender discrimination, would no longer be investigated. The new guideline also removed all mentions of “systemic” investigations, instructing the investigators to narrow their focus to the merits of a particular claim, rather than probing systemic issues.

“Instead of seeing every case as an opportunity to advance a political agenda, we are focused on the needs of each individual student and on faithfully executing the laws,” Kenneth Marcus said in a statement. “This is the right thing to do, and the data show it works.”