The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights Seems to Have Found a New Role

The United States Department of Education announced that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the department will launch the Outreach, Prevention, Education and Non-discrimination (OPEN) Center to focus on proactive compliance with federal civil rights laws. The OPEN Center will provide assistance and support to schools, educators, families, and students to ensure better awareness of the requirements and protections of federal non-discrimination laws.

While OCR typically enforces federal civil rights laws through the traditional complaint-resolution process, OCR will, through the provision of targeted support to recipient institutions and the public, also be able to work more proactively — prior to the filing of complaints — to ensure that schools are aware of their obligations under federal civil rights law.

“The OPEN Center is all about strengthening civil rights compliance through voluntary, proactive activities,” said Assistant Secretary Kenneth L. Marcus. “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.”

In 2018, a ProPublica investigation determined that the department under President Trump had scuttled more than 1,200 civil rights investigations that were begun under the Obama administration and lasted at least six months. These cases, which investigated complaints of civil rights violations ranging from discriminatory discipline to sexual violence in school districts and colleges around the country, were closed without any findings of wrongdoing or corrective action, often due to insufficient evidence.

ProPublica also found that under President Obama, 51 percent of cases that took more than 180 days culminated in findings of civil rights violations, or corrective changes. Under the Trump administration, that rate has dropped to 35 percent.

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