Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

Campus Rape Loses Special Status in Trump's Education Department

Facing budget cuts, the Office of Civil Rights will no longer automatically give heightened scrutiny to allegations of sexual assault at schools and universities.

When Candice Jackson was appointed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as acting head of the Office of Civil Rights in April, Jackson gave little indication which direction she planned to steer enforcement of civil rights law in the nation's schools. 

memo written by Jackson and published by ProPublica sheds light on her direction. Under Jackson, the Office for Civil Rights will no longer apply heightened scrutiny to allegations of sexual assault or harassment on campus. It will also end the practice of routinely checking to see if one allegation reveals a pattern. 

In the memo, Jackson also stressed the need to close cases quickly. It's a worthy goal. The average sexual violence investigation by the office takes 2.6 years, up from 9 months in 2010. Even the time it takes to resolve discipline complaints related to improper school suspensions and expulsions has doubled in that time.

But some of the delay reflects a surge in complaints filed with the OCR, from 5,805 to 16,720 in the past decade. Over the same period, the agency has cut its workforce from about 640 people to 570 now (of which 385 are attorneys). The Trump administration’s budget proposes laying off another 46 employees, including 27 attorneys. Even before those cuts, OCR lawyers have seen their caseloads rise from 14 investigations per person per year to 41.

Coupled with the proposed budget reductions, Jackson's memo suggests that the OCR will only get weaker. In effect, that could shift the burden to families and their private lawyers to pursue allegations of abuse at schools. 

“If your child is the object of discrimination, you can reach out to the government and they will investigate it for you,” said Paul Grossman, who worked as an attorney at the agency until his retirement in 2013. “If you shut down or restrict OCR, you’re in effect seeing to it that unless they can pay for a lawyer, an individual has no effective way of asserting their civil rights.”

The Office of Civil Rights didn't respond to a request for comment on Jackson's memo, and the Education Department declined to make her available for an interview.

The agency's new interim leader brings to the role a history of involvement in charged disputes about sexual assualt allegations in national politics. Jackson is perhaps best known as a strong critic of the Clintons and the author of the 2005 book, Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine. During the most recent presidential campaign, she characterized Hillary Clinton as “an enabler” of rapists in articles for InfoWars and WorldNetDaily

According to New York magazine, Trump advisor Roger Stone paid Jackson $7,000 in 2015 to conduct a video interview with Kathy Shelton, a victim in a 1975 rape case where Clinton represented the defendant. Jackson went on to represent Shelton and is listed as the director of Their Lives Foundation, a Washington state-based organization that aims to “advocate for and against candidates for political office and giving public voice to victims of women who abuse positions of power.”

At the same time, in a 2016 Facebook post, Jackson called the women claiming then-candidate Donald Trump had harassed them “fake victims.” She has also criticized laws against sexual assault and harassment, saying unwanted sexual advances were often “difficult to define” and that men often had to self-censor themselves to avoid accusations of harassment.

The OCR investigates other alleged instances of discrimination. Recently, the office has seen a sharp rise in claims related to Internet access for people with disabilities, as well as Title IX cases focused on sports. OCR investigators examine every complaint and, if they determine an investigation is justified, embark on a monthslong or yearslong process in which they conduct interviews, issue document requests, and sometimes even visit the school.

The office’s resources are already stretched. In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the agency noted that its office supplies were so depleted that employees sometimes had to scramble to find copy paper and batteries. One former employee who visited OCR field offices across the country said a common complaint he heard from employees was that their computers were so old they took minutes to turn on.

Mostly, though, the staff is worried that it would soon be unable to give proper attention to every complaint. “It caused us a lot of anxiety,” says Grossman, who retired in 2013 after 41 years as an OCR attorney. In addition to the high-profile and time-consuming cases of sexual violence, he said he's worried about all of OCR’s lesser-known projects. Before he retired, Grossman traveled around the country talking to college administrators about veterans’ needs, how to integrate them into the rest of the student body, and the type of campus services they might benefit from. “Of course, that requires the OCR to have a travel budget,” he says.

The future of existing cases may also come into question. As of January, the OCR was investigating about 330 institutions for Title IX violations related to sexual violence. At her confirmation hearing, DeVos refused to say whether she would support OCR’s guidelines on how schools should handle allegations of sexual assault. Jackson’s memo encouraged the agency to reach voluntary settlements with schools as often as possible. 

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