This week a report from the Center for American Progress showed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has dramatically scaled back protecting the rights of LGBTQ students.
Using the Education Department’s own data, this first analysis of how LGBTQ students have fared during the first half of the Trump administration shows, “The administration has reshaped policy to exclude civil rights protections for transgender people in most areas of government and has scaled back legal protections for gay people...the Trump administration was less likely to investigate claims of discrimination filed by the students—and more likely to dismiss them.”
Let me make this perfectly clear: [pullquote]The United States Department of Education, under the questionable leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVos, has made explicit that they do not believe LGBTQ students are deserving of civil rights protections.[/pullquote]
I could fill a room with case studies and data that show LGBTQ students are adversely impacted by bullying, violence and stigma, which is often perpetuated within the school system. I could fill another room with more evidence that bullying and violence can lead to life-long, crippling emotional and physical issues. But what I would really like to do is fill Betsy DeVos’ office with the ideals of best practice. Not “what is best for rich kids in my neighborhood” best practice, but “what is best for every kid in every neighborhood” best practice.
Every single person in education should be working with the belief that if good, solid data shows a better way of doing things, we must move in that direction. [pullquote position="right"]When we find that our current practices are harming students, we must immediately remedy, change course and move away from practices that may damage a child.[/pullquote]
As Oregon Teacher of the Year, I stepped up and spoke out in support of LGBTQ youth. My district sought to silence me and often retaliated when I refused to "toe the line." In 2014, I filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights because my school district was impacting the safety and rights of my students in their retaliatory measures aimed at me. For example, my medically fragile classroom was the only class in my building and I had no teacher of record if I left the room. My six assistants were working under my license in the classroom. Yet, I was informed that my desk was to be moved to the opposite end of an empty floor and that if I entered my classroom during my prep period, planning time or breaks I would be fired. This left my medically fragile children without a teacher and my staff without any guidance.
I was shocked by the message I received from the Office for Civil Rights. They would not step in to protect my students because the actions by my school district were based on retaliation towards me as a gay man. And being gay, at the time, was not protected status. In other words, my students lost their civil rights because their teacher was gay and being bullied.
I met with Sen. Ron Wyden’s staff to discuss the situation and soon after, the Obama administration changed the rules to protect LGBTQ students in the schools. Had my complaint been filed under the Obama guidelines, they would have investigated my complaint and my students would have had their civil rights protected.
My medically fragile students were worthy of protection then and they still are. But were my case to happen today, the Office for Civil Rights would, once again, look the other way. Betsy DeVos would not allow my students to be protected.
Even more concerning is that the Department of Education is discharging case after case without investigating and, according to the New York Times, closing complaints based on new rules designed to keep complaints out of the system.
In some cases, they are dismissing vast numbers of accessibility complaints from people with special needs. If one person reports too many violations, all of their complaints are being whitewashed from the system, based solely on the number of complaints—not on the merits of the complaint.
These shifts at the Department of Education all violate the concept of best practice. In doing so, [pullquote]they violate the most basic rule—never harm students.[/pullquote] A teacher who ignores best practices should be removed from their classroom. A principal who violates best practices should be removed from their building. And, finally, a secretary of education who violates best practices and refuses to protect the children in her care, should be removed from her position.
I’m just a teacher, but this teacher calls for the resignation of Secretary Betsy DeVos for knowingly and willingly allowing children to be harmed in our nation's public schools.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to visit cultural landmarks and social events. The books are currently available in 10 countries and four languages. He is president of ORSTOY, the Oregon chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and serves on the boards of Oregon Safe Schools and Clubfunder.Org.
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