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Civil Rights Chief Lays Out Issues

  • Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, described hot-button issues in her remarks at the Council’s Legislative Conference.

    Discussing current legislative efforts with impact on LGBTQ plus students, Lhamon was emphatic, saying: “Are we are ready to enforce federal civil rights laws for students and schools? The truth is that federal law trumps state law, and if there is sex discrimination or disability discrimination that occurs in schools that violates federal law, we will enforce the law. And that includes creating, operating, and perpetuating a hostile environment for students at school. So, if an LGBTQ plus student in your district cannot be made safe because there is an impediment that passes in your state, we will be ready to enforce federal law” to ensure a safe environment.

    As the audience applauded, she added: “I think it is reprehensible that we are witnessing these kinds of harms on children. … We know kids need to be able to talk about who they are, who their families are, and what their traditions are, and they need to be able to be themselves at schools. And you all need the tools to safeguard their full range of safety. … I'm so very grateful that you all are standing ready to serve everyone in your districts.”

    In her speech, Lhamon called attention to a recent investigation into some 61 uses of restraint or seclusion on a kindergarten in a single year. “Schools should not shorten a student’s school days without making an individualized determination” and it should not happen “for the school’s administrative convenience or as a disciplinary method,” she said.

    The case highlighted another issue – the federal requirement of accurate record-keeping. “We use that data to inform our investigations and the public uses it to evaluate the status of learning opportunities in schools,” she said.

    The district in question won plaudits from Lhamon for promptly and effectively changing its practices. “The district took on the task of correction, effectively and speedily working to save students’ rights and [improve] learning,” she said.

    Lhamon also addressed the appropriate involvement of school resource officers, reminding educators “to minimize the involvement of the school resource officers [in connection with] student misconduct that can be safely, appropriately handled by school personnel.”

    She summarized other recent investigations, including a district in South Dakota that limited the number of students who could be evaluated for learning disabilities and a Utah district that inappropriately relied on family members and other students for interpretation services. She also noted a rise in antisemitic harassment in schools and an ongoing need on the part of districts to address racial harassment in schools.

    “These cases are incredibly painful, and they remind us of the daily challenge that you hold not only to instruct students in reading, writing, and arithmetic but to create and foster an inclusive learning environment that sustains all students,” she said. “School communities are places for kids to learn how to be great, and the law is that students may not be subjected to hostile environments because of who they are.”

    Lhamon referred the audience to recent guidance published by her office, including a fact sheet about providing students with disabilities free, appropriate public education during the COVID-19 crisis.

    She noted that her office, with the Department of Justice Office for Civil Rights, has issued a joint fact sheet to support students at risk of self-harm.

    Other guidance documents are available on topics including English language learners, long COVID responsibilities in remote, hybrid and in-person education environments related to civil rights, anti LGBTQI+ and harassment in school, and COVID-19 related harassment to Asian American Pacific Islander students at the school, she noted.