The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights last week closed a long-running discrimination case involving a transgender student and withdrew its earlier findings that the girl had suffered discrimination at school, a move that comes amid the Trump administration’s push to scale back civil rights investigations in public schools.
The agency communicated its decision in a letter to lawyers representing the girl, an elementary school student in Sparta, Ohio. The letter provided no reason or legal justification for withdrawing its 2016 conclusion that the girl’s school wrongly barred her from the girls’ bathroom and failed to address harassment she endured from classmates and teachers, who repeatedly addressed her with male pronouns and the male name she was given at birth.
Candice Jackson, acting head of the civil rights office, said the department closed the case because the student has filed a legal challenge against the school district, and the matter will be settled in court.
Officials withdrew the findings of discrimination, Jackson said, because those findings were based on guidance that directed schools to allow transgender students access to bathrooms matching their gender identity. The Trump administration rescinded that guidance in February.
Civil rights advocates see the closure of the Ohio case — and especially the unusual withdrawal of the federal investigators’ legal conclusion — as a troubling sign of retreat from civil rights enforcement.
“This is so dangerous,” said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is representing the Ohio student, identified only as Jane Doe, in a lawsuit against the school district. “They have just sent a message to schools that it’s open season on transgender students.”
The agency also this month closed a different long-running case involving a transgender student’s complaint about locker room access in Palatine, Ill., according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the student in that case. Issues from that case are also now before the courts, and the student who brought the complaint has graduated.
The ACLU’s John Knight said there are other transgender students in Palatine who are struggling to be treated fairly and could benefit from continued federal oversight.
The Education Department cautioned against construing the closure of the cases as a statement about the Trump administration’s view of or approach to transgender students’ rights.
The previously unreported moves came days after the Education Department issued an internal memo describing how to handle transgender students’ civil rights complaints given the rescission of the guidance on school bathrooms. Education officials said they wanted to emphasize that transgender students may still have valid discrimination complaints despite the rescission of that guidance.
The memo said officials should continue to investigate complaints about bullying and harassment. But it was vague about the polarizing issue of transgender students’ access to bathrooms, saying that such cases could be dismissed but stopping short of saying that such cases should be dismissed.
Catherine Lhamon, who helmed the Education Department’s civil rights office when it reached its conclusion in the Ohio case, said she worries that the case closures show that the memo should be understood as a sign that the Trump administration does not intend to investigate bathroom-access complaints.
Lhamon also said she could think of no legal basis for closing the Ohio case or withdrawing previous findings, which were based on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination. A federal appellate court recently affirmed that interpretation.
“It’s renegade law,” she said.
Others, who say students must use bathrooms according to their biological sex rather than their gender identity, have welcomed the Trump administration’s change of course on complaints involving transgender students. And some of them, too, see the decision to close the Ohio case as an important sign.
“Hopefully they’re backing off this agenda of intermingling sexes in locker rooms, bathrooms and other facilities,” said Gary McCaleb, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, which argues that allowing transgender students to use bathrooms designated for the opposite biological sex violates the privacy of other students.
The organization is representing the school district in the Ohio dispute and parents in the Illinois case.
As the Education Department charts a new course on transgender students’ complaints, it is also seeking to scale back enforcement in other areas.
Jackson, the acting head of the civil rights office, has directed lawyers to narrow the scope of investigations into sexual assault and discriminatory school discipline policies, according to a June 8 memo first reported by ProPublica.
Under the Obama administration, the civil rights office sought to determine whether any one student’s complaint about those issues was symptomatic of a broader problem, in part by examining at least three years of past complaint data.
The Trump administration is discontinuing that practice and will not regularly seek to identify “systemic” problems, according to the memo.
Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the change in approach is meant to confront the agency’s infamous complaint backlog and ensure that investigations are resolved more quickly. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long,” she said.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called it an “abdication of the Education Department’s responsibility to protect the rights and dignity of our nation’s vulnerable children during the most crucial years of their lives.”