Donald Trump seems more intent on dismantling the federal government than running it. I hope I’m wrong about this. But in appointment after appointment, the president-elect has chosen cabinet secretaries who disdain the agencies they are being asked to lead. From an EPA chief who is suing the agency, to a Health & Human Services secretary who wants to take away healthcare, the emerging list of Trump administration officials is worrying for many reasons.
For the LGBT community, there are particularly worrisome signs about Trump’s nominees. His choice for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and against expanding the definition of hate crimes to include acts based on a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Scott Pruitt, his choice to head the EPA, is so opposed to LGBT equality that he has been called the “head bully.”
But for some of the youngest and most vulnerable LGBT people – our nation’s students – it is Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education that causes great concern. DeVos – who has been a major donor to anti-LGBT organizations like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the National Organization for Marriage – will now be in charge of America’s public school system. How, or whether, she will address the harassment and bullying LGBT students face in our schools should be among the first questions she is asked during her confirmation hearings. Here’s why.
Over the past eight years, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has played a crucial role in addressing discrimination, harassment, bullying, and violence in our nation’s schools. In my work at Public Justice, we’ve filed complaints with OCR that resulted in investigations of school districts in cases involving sexual violence, gender-based and racial harassment, and dating violence. When OCR opens an investigation, schools pay attention. And when the federal government intervenes to ensure schools are properly applying the law to protect students, parents rest easier.
Now, OCR’s work appears to be in jeopardy. Trump advisers have suggested dismantling or defunding OCR, or moving its work to an entirely different agency. If they succeed in doing so, LGBT students – along with other students who have relied on OCR to address sexual harassment and violence – will be robbed of a key force in battling discrimination in our nation’s schools. If the agency disappears, or is significantly watered down, transgender students will be unable to request an investigation when they are denied access to school facilities, and schools will not be held accountable when students are bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. DeVos will have to decide how to interpret and apply Title IX, the federal civil rights law designed to combat sex discrimination and ensure gender equity in education. OCR has long interpreted Title IX to cover harassment of LGBT students. Will DeVos try to undo this?
In short, on day one, DeVos will be able to continue policies and enforcement that have already helped countless LGBT students or wipe them away. Given her past support of anti-LGBT lobbyists and groups, parents and advocates have cause to be concerned.
Before senators vote on her confirmation, they should insist she lay out her vision for the future of OCR’s policies and enforcement. Specifically, they should insist she answer these five questions:
- Do you intend to continue OCR’s enforcement of students’ rights to an education in a safe environment, free from discrimination and harassment?
- Do you support existing policy guidance on transgender students’ access to school facilities?
- Do you continue to support – financially or otherwise – organizations that have campaigned against LGBT rights or advocate “conversion” therapy?
- Do you believe Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and will you implement the law accordingly?
- How will the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights address claims of anti-LGBT harassment, discrimination or violence, and how will OCR’s work change, if at all, under your leadership?
Her answers will tell us a lot about whether the department that has made such a difference in the lives of LGBT and other targeted students over the past eight years will continue to be their ally or will be reshaped by groups with a divisive, anti-LGBT political agenda.
Adele P. Kimmel is Senior Attorney at Public Justice, an impact litigation group that pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. For more information, visit PublicJustice.net.