Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, is calling for the ouster of the Education Department’s civil rights chief, saying she is unfit for the job.
Candice Jackson, the acting head of the agency’s Office for Civil Rights, triggered fierce criticism last week when she told the New York Times that “90 percent” of campus sexual-assault complaints “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”
In days since, Jackson apologized publicly, disclosing that as a survivor of rape herself, she believes “all sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously.” She also apologized privately to assault survivors in a meeting to discuss the department’s role in enforcing Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded schools.
Murray said Monday that apologizing for such “callous, insensitive and egregious comments” is not enough. Jackson’s words “crossed a serious line and highlighted her clear biases in this area in a way that, to me and many women and men across the country, should disqualify her from service in the position of top Department of Education protector of students’ right to be safe at school,” the senator said in a statement.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Jackson had apologized for her remarks, which did not represent her own point of view nor that of the department. “Candice is a valuable part of the Administration and an unwavering advocate for the civil rights of all students,” DeVos said.
If nominated for the permanent job at the helm of the Office for Civil Rights, Jackson would need Senate confirmation. Murray’s position suggests she would face opposition.
Murray led Democrats’ unanimous opposition to DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary and has been a relentless critic since then. She has repeatedly questioned DeVos’s commitment to enforcing civil rights laws in the nation’s schools and colleges, pointing to the agency’s decisions to rescind guidance protecting transgender students and narrow some civil rights investigations.
DeVos is also a strong supporter of voucher programs, many of which allow private schools to discriminate against voucher recipients who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or have LGBT parents. In testimony before Congress, she has declined to say whether she would block such private schools from receiving federal funds.
Murray was among 34 senators who sent DeVos a letter in June outlining their concerns about her team’s approach to civil rights enforcement. The senators also asked DeVos nine questions about the department’s civil rights division, including lists of open cases involving two of the agency’s most controversial issues — transgender students and sexual-assault allegations — and any memos discussing policy changes.
They asked for a response by July 11, and DeVos sent a letter that day defending her commitment to the agency’s civil rights work as “unwavering.”
She did not answer the senators’ questions, but she did acknowledge changes in the agency’s civil rights office under her watch. Under President Barack Obama, DeVos wrote, the office had sought to “punish and embarrass” institutions, collecting reams of data from schools and colleges in search of violations at the expense of resolving individuals’ complaints quickly and fairly.
The civil rights office is no longer “automatically” treating individual complaints as evidence of systemic problems, DeVos wrote.
“The Department today is returning [the Office of Civil Rights] to its role as a neutral, impartial investigative agency,” she wrote.
Murray responded three days later, reiterating the request for answers to the nine questions DeVos had ignored.