The National Women’s Law Center filed suit Monday against the Education Department in an effort to force the release of information about federal enforcement of Title IX, a law that governs how schools handle campus sexual harassment and assault.
In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the D.C.-based nonprofit group alleges the department has wrongfully failed to release public records that should have been released by now under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Law Center argues that the information is important for understanding how the Trump administration is approaching Title IX enforcement — especially given that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has declined to say whether she intends to uphold or withdraw controversial guidance to schools and colleges on sexual harassment and sexual violence issued during the administration of President Barack Obama.
“Without the release of these documents, students, families, and advocates are kept in the dark about whether the department is enforcing legal protections for student survivors of sexual harassment and rape,” said Fatima Goss Graves, the organization’s president-elect. “Without their release, survivors won’t know if they can trust the government to intervene on their behalf.”
A spokeswoman for the department said she could not comment on pending litigation. DeVos has sidestepped questions about how she intends to handle Title IX enforcement but has said it is an issue she cares about deeply.
“Let me just say my mom’s heart is really piqued on this issue,” she told senators in January during her confirmation hearing. “Assault in any form is never okay, and I just want to be clear on that. . . . I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victims, as well as those who are accused.”
On Jan. 26, the Law Center requested all records related to the agency’s resolution of sexual-harassment cases as well as information about cases still pending. The agency responded on Feb. 21, saying it would not be able to respond within 20 working days, “due to the backlog of requests and the competing demands for the time of staff.”
Under FOIA, the department can take longer than 20 days to process a public records request in “unusual circumstances.” Those circumstances must be explained in writing, and the requester must have the chance to narrow its request. The complaint alleges that the Law Center was not given that opportunity and that more than four months after the initial request, no records have been provided.
Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the Law Center, said that the organization did not formally request similar information previously, because the Obama administration voluntarily published much of it.