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Education Department civil rights officials urged to work through ‘tough times ahead’

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. and former Education Decretary Arne Duncan, shown in a 2015 file photo, reunited to celebrate the Office for Civil Rights. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

A celebration of the Education Department’s civil rights work morphed into a pep rally Thursday to bolster federal workers and advocates who are expecting difficult years ahead under president-elect Donald Trump.

“We’ve got some tough times ahead, but we are up to it,” Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and an education civil rights icon, told the audience at the department’s D.C. headquarters. “You might as well hunker down, do your crying at nights and on the weekends. We are not going backwards.”

Edelman — who is also a mentor of failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — thanked the career employees at the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and asked them to stay in their jobs: “You’re more important than ever.”

Under President Obama, OCR has aggressively stepped up its investigation and enforcement efforts, handling a skyrocketing number of complaints even as the number of its staff has declined. The office also has issued guidance documents that have reshaped expectations for how K-12 schools and colleges handle sexual assault, deal with discipline and accommodate transgender students.

Civil rights advocates have cheered those efforts. But school districts, colleges and Republican lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of burdensome requirements and legal overreach, while Trump surrogates have suggested that OCR should be stripped of much of its authority. Trump could revise or reverse key guidance documents, or his administration could starve OCR’s budget, making it impossible to keep up with cases.

Trump could reverse Obama’s actions on college sex assault, transgender rights

All that was in the background at Thursday’s gathering, though no one uttered Trump’s name. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. mentioned the rash of bullying and harassment incidents since the Nov. 8 presidential election. “There are too many students of color who feel afraid in school,” he said. “We have an obligation, all of us, to redouble our efforts to intensify our work to ensure we protect the civil rights of all students.”

King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan — who returned to D.C. for the event — said he believes the election results held a silver lining. “This time is going to force all of us to confront racism, to confront communities that are being left behind economically. And guess what, the answer to both is education,” he said.

The OCR received nearly 17,000 complaints during fiscal 2016, according to its annual report published Thursday. That’s more than double the number it received in 2009, according to a companion report summarizing OCR’s work during the past eight years.

Both reports served as the Obama administration’s argument that OCR does essential work that must continue.

Departing from the usual dry prose of government reports, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon wrote in her introduction to the annual report that she “will be forever haunted by some of the facts we uncovered during our investigations,” and went on to recount specific troubling cases: a teacher who told a child with a disability to kill herself; a nine-year-old who was restrained 92 times and spent more time in seclusion and recovery rooms than he spent in classrooms; an Arab American student called a “terrorist” in his school’s hallways; and an immigrant who was assaulted as someone yelled “Welcome to America.”

“It’s brutal for me to think about the kids we didn’t serve, all the justice we have not yet delivered,” Lhamon said Thursday.

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