The Congressionally-appointed U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, often labeled a “watchdog” group, has raised concerns about Secretary Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education and its enforcement of civil rights statues. But in reality, DeVos’ department is returning to long-held interpretations of civil rights guarantees such as Title IX and racial equity in school discipline, after President Obama’s administration pushed them far beyond their boundaries. Using his infamous “pen and phone,” President Obama often pushed the boundaries of statutory interpretation, moving beyond language designed to protect the equal rights of women and racial minorities to advance a far-left agenda that has had serious negative consequences on the ground.
Title IX guidance from the Obama administration has spurred the spread of kangaroo court-style sexual misconduct “trials” in universities. Just last month, a freshman at UC Davis spent months of his life and $12,000 defending himself in a Title IX court for a make-out session that was clearly not only consensual, but mutual. An African-American student is suing Brown University for discrimination after the university barred him from campus in which a girl “bit, choked, and pinned him,” but later filed a Title IX claim. The Obama guidelines produced a system so absurd that the roles of victim and perpetrator in a drunken hookup can be assigned by the order in which students report the incident.
Americans recently watched these reputation-destroying new norms metastasize onto the political scene in the Kavanaugh hearings, and poll results indicate they did not like what they saw. A large, bipartisan majority of 75 percent disagreed with the way the accusations against then-Judge Kavanaugh were handled by the Democrats, and almost 70 percent agree that false accusations are some type of problem in the workplace, directly contradicting the “believe all women” slogan of campus-style feminism.
Furthermore, having the opportunity to observe what was for all intents and purposes an Obama administration-endorsed Title IX “trial” play out on the national stage may have done long-term damage to professional and personal relationships between the sexes. In a new survey, 40 percent of men would rather be falsely accused of murder than sexual assault, compared with just 22 percent who preferred the latter, almost certainly because almost 60 percent of all respondents, men and women, said that men accused of sexual misconduct do not have the benefit of being presumed innocent absent evidence.
Are these the “civil rights” the U.S. Commission is concerned DeVos is not enforcing sufficiently? If so, Americans are indicating by wide margins that they would prefer the Department of Education focus on bringing to justice violators of the actual rights that Title IX is intended to protect, rather than engaging in witch hunts that upend other important rights-protecting norms like the presumption of innocence and cross-examination of accusers.
Likewise, investigations into school districts for racial disparities in discipline rates has produced not just bad policy, but arguably tragedy.
While specific incidents of suspected racial bias in public schools should absolutely be investigated, once again, the Obama Department of Education issued overly-broad guidance that strongly incentivized schools to move away from traditional discipline practices. The result in many districts has been that students who repeatedly engage in violent behavior have been slipping through the cracks. Most famously, the Parkland school shooter had no criminal record despite multiple potentially criminal behavioral incidents, due to the reluctance of the district to bring formal disciplinary charges or involve law enforcement. Those same Parkland policies were praised and pushed by the previous administration, with dubious statutory authority, in the name of “civil rights.”
Civil rights statutes are meant to ensure that students of color have the same opportunities to receive a public education as white students, not to micromanage the on-the-ground discipline decisions of teachers and incentivize districts to accept lax, sometimes dangerous, discipline standards. When the Trump administration undoes some of these attempts to push social policy well beyond the boundaries of civil rights law, it is not threatening rights in this country, but ensuring that federal law is enforced properly.
Two Commission on Civil Rights appointees voted against the politicized resolution condemning DeVos, and some speakers highlighted the normalcy of the Department’s pushback against overbroad interpretations. “Conservatives, including conservative civil rights lawyers, tend to feel bound by statutory and constitutional text. As such, advocacy groups and others that want, in the absence of statutory authority, to advance issues such as transgender rights, are disappointed," said Robert Driscoll, a former DOJ Civil Rights Division deputy assistant attorney general under the Bush administration.
DeVos’ more narrow interpretations of federal law will help to reverse some of the unintended consequences of the previous administration’s overreach. That the Department of Education is pulling back from some of the most extreme interpretations of the Obama era is not cause to worry that it is abandoning its obligation to enforce civil law statutes. Instead, DeVos’ insistence on staying within the boundaries of reasonable Congressional intent instead of legislating via administrative fiat is a welcome return to Constitutional governance.