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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Civil rights’ roll back? Or common sense?

The Trump administration is rolling back civil rights efforts, according to ProPublica. leaked memo reveals that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) plans to change the Obama-era policy on investigating complaints.

Charges of sexual assault and harassment will be the most affected by OCR’s new policy, writes R. Shep Melnick, a Boston College professor and author of the forthcoming book, The Transformation of Title IX.  What’s being rolled back, he writes, is an aggressive strategy to force compliance with “legally questionable” OCR dictates.

Under the Obama administration, OCR automatically turned each complaint “into years-long investigations of the practices of an entire university or school district,” writes Melnick. All sexual misconduct investigations were publicized before they were investigated. Each complaint triggered “a full-blown investigation of the entire institution.”

Since 2011 OCR has initiated 399 sexual assault investigations, but resolved only 62 of them. The average investigation lasts 1.7 years, the longest over six years. Even those who applaud OCR’s aggressiveness on the issue have criticized it for letting the individual complainant fall through the cracks. A lawyer for the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center praised OCR’s determination to “look at everything from soup to nuts,” but argued that its enforcement strategy “utterly fails to provide remedies to individual victims.”

In a statement, Education Department press secretary Elizabeth Hill said the new policy will focus on “justice” for complainants, dropping an “artificial requirement to gather several years of data.”

“Longtime leaders can’t recall another issue that so consumed colleges,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015. “Some presidents say they’ve spent half their time on the issue—and serious money, limiting their ability to add another mental-health counselor, for example, or hold down a tuition increase.”

OCR has gone beyond the Supreme Court’s interpretation of sex discrimination law, so it can’t afford to take schools to court, writes Melnick. “The lengthy, costly, and reputation-damaging federal investigation is the weapon OCR has used to bludgeon schools into complying with its legally questionable demands.”

OCR should re-examine its 2011 and 2014 guidance on sexual harassment, Melnick concludes. He suggests “showing respect for the rulings of the Supreme Court.”

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