Team Trump Wants to Scrap the Office of Civil Rights. Who Will That Benefit?

In a community not too far from mine, yet light years away in the tony suburb of Upper Dublin, a group of families lodged a complaint against their local district for consistently discriminatory practices against Black children.

Local coverage pointed out the concerns of a group called Concerned African American Parents:

  • Black students comprised 7.3 percent of Upper Dublin’s 4,232 students last year but received 45 percent of the suspensions.
  • Not one Black student was in the gifted program in the district’s four elementary schools and middle school.
  • The group wants the district to eliminate the lowest of its three tracks, which has a disproportionate number of students of color and where “unfortunately, not a lot of learning goes on.” Without that bottom track, students would be integrated into higher-level courses.

The reaction from those in denial was predictable.

Unfortunately, there are those (including educators) who say, “Oh, they only suspend the bad kids, so if 45 percent of the suspensions are Black kids, it means they are bad and have bad parents.” Or: “If there are no Black kids in the district’s gifted programs, then they must not be gifted.”

If this smells like systemic racism and the systematic marginalization of members of the community, you’re not mistaken. Just as horses are forced to wear blinders to focus them on what’s ahead, people choose to wear their privileged blinders to avoid acknowledging what privilege, bias and racism are and how they play out in our society.

In comes the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), whose job it is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights.” It is the OCR’s job to investigate such allegations and provide guidelines to districts to ensure that they are being vigilant about students’ civil rights.

In 2015, OCR Assistant Secretary Cathrerine Lhamon visited our community for a roundtable. She reiterated the need for vigilance in the face of unequal treatment in public institutions receiving federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Education—particularly schools.

Keep in mind, that warning was well before the arrival of a president-elect who seems to view the safeguarding of students’ civil rights as an unnecessary inconvenience.

In the meantime, though, members of the OCR continue to do their jobs undeterred, focusing on what matters. I don’t know if Upper Dublin will change before OCR completes its investigation and recommendations. I am, however, glad that there is a group at the federal level charged with investigating such charges.

States will need to bolster their efforts considering the disregard for rights of the human and civil kind. Community members, like those who filed the complaint, will need to be even more deliberate in their efforts to hold institutions accountable, especially if a new iteration of the OCR fails to honor its sacred charge under a Trump administration.

Let’s hope that there are policy makers, politicians and community members who will fight to maintain the integrity this essential civil rights office.

Pamoja Tutashinda. Together we will win.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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