Civil Rights Groups Urge DeVos, Sessions to Uphold Strong Civil Rights Offices

The Leadership Conference and a number of partner organizations this week sent letters to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging them to staff their agencies’ civil rights offices with individuals who will protect civil rights.

On Monday, 60 organizations sent a letter to DeVos emphasizing the importance of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the qualities of the person who should lead it. That letter, which now has more than 70 signatories, states that “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.”

“The assistant secretary should have a track record of experience with a range of civil rights issues, have experience with and be committed to remedying individual and systemic discrimination, be prepared to follow wherever the law and the facts lead, and believe that every student in kindergarten through 12th grade has the right to be in school every day and be treated with dignity without the burden of discrimination,” the letter says.

The following day, more than 120 organizations sent a similar letter to Sessions with respect to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.

“The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was created by passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and this year marks its 60th anniversary. The Civil Rights Division and its eleven sections have the critical responsibility of enforcing our nation’s federal civil rights laws,” the letter states. “Its mission is to provide equal treatment and equal justice under the law by enforcing and defending the civil rights of all Americans in such areas as voting, criminal justice, education, employment, housing, and public accommodations. Our federal civil rights laws have transformed the nation, outlawing discrimination in nearly every facet of American life.”

The letter goes on to assert that the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights must have the following qualifications:

  • a track record of aggressively and affirmatively enforcing federal civil rights laws;
  • a willingness to defend against dilution or weakening of these laws and against unnecessary funding and staffing cuts;
  • an understanding of the traditions and operations of the Civil Rights Division;
  • experience affirmatively litigating cases in federal court across civil rights subject areas;
  • the ability to manage effectively and lead a large organization; and
  • a deep commitment to the important and historic mission of ensuring that our nation lives up to its promise of equality and justice for all.

The letters come as DeVos and Sessions – both approved by the Senate last month after narrow confirmation votes – have taken a number of actions condemned by civil rights organizations. Their departments jointly rescinded Title IX guidance that clarified protections for the nation’s transgender students. At the close of Black History Month, DeVos mischaracterized the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Sessions has reversed the Obama administration’s private prison phase-out, reversed DOJ’s position on Texas’ voter ID law, and has indicated that DOJ will stop monitoring troubled police departments.