Education Department Ignores LGBTQ Students’ Discrimination Claims

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee in June 2017. / Image via screen capture, PBS News Hour

We’ve known this for awhile, but now we have the hard data.

As The New York Times reported yesterday, a new study by liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) using U.S. Department of Education data “provided the first analysis of how students who identify as [LGBTQ] have fared in the first half of the Trump administration.”


The opening lines of the CAP study lay bare how drastically LGBTQ student protections have shifted, even from the earliest days of the Trump era:

In one of her first acts as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos revoked Obama-era guidance that protected transgender students.1 The 2016 guidance had informed schools that the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) interpreted Title IX of the Higher Education Act as protecting all students on the basis of their gender identity, including by guaranteeing access to sex-segregated activities and facilities in accordance with their gender identity.2

Since 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “officially confirmed” the Department would no longer investigate any “complaints from transgender students regarding access to bathrooms and locker rooms, as well as [various] other complaints of anti-transgender discrimination.” CAP compares these shifts to dispiriting data coming out of LGBTQ advocacy and nonprofit groups like GLSEN, whose recent survey found

about 70 percent of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment at school based on their sexual orientation, and more than half reported harassment based on gender expression or gender identity.


More than half of all LGBTQ students in the GLSEN survey reported sexual harassment and nearly one-third reported physical harassment. These patterns of discriminatory mistreatment and abuse, CAP warned, have “significant negative effects” like missed classes, lower grades and “a decreased desire to pursue a postsecondary education,” along with a four-to-six times higher likelihood of “consider[ing] or attempt[ing] suicide” when compared to non-LGBTQ students.

Fewer Investigations and Vastly Reduced Remedial Actions: Administration Abandons Young LGBTQ Americans

CAP’s report, the Times explained, “found that the Trump administration was less likely to investigate claims” than the Obama administration and significantly less likely to demand remedial steps from discriminating schools. In fact, the “percentage of complaints that resulted” in such remedial actions “was nine times lower than under the Obama administration.”

Secretary DeVos earns individual condemnation as well:

[The] education secretary, who reportedly protested the swiftness of the document’s revocation, has said that while the department would no longer investigate bathroom complaints, it would still enforce protections for L.G.B.T.Q. students who were bullied, penalized or harassed for failing to conform to sex-based stereotypes.

That is not happening, the Center for American Progress said.


Instead, CAP concludes, she just “is not doing her job.” A very encouraging finding.

Defensive Measures?

CAP made three overarching legal recommendations to lawmakers, underscoring how important it is that they “pass legislation … to further protect the rights of LGBTQ students” in the vacuum left by the Education Department. These include:

  • Congress passing the Equality Act (which appears essentially dead-on-arrival in the U.S. Senate);
  • Congress passing the Safe Schools Improvement Act (“SSIA,” which, according to the Human Rights Campaign, would “require school districts … to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment” across a range of demographic factors encompassing sexual orientation and gender identity); and
  • State legislatures passing “state-level student nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws that enumerate [sexual orientation and gender identity]-related discrimination” specifically (as has been done in the contexts of housing and employment in over 20 states, but applied and extended to education contexts).

The strident, tartly phrased response from the Education Department after CAP’s report (“’These data were selectively compiled by a left-wing interest group to tell an ideological story,’ said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department. ‘No one should mistake this as unbiased’”) belies the fact that Education Department data were CAP’s source material, something acknowledged by the agency. But it also is of a piece with Trump-era executive dissembling in the face of widespread scrutiny: deflections and barbed partisan bromides have become normalized, all the while the agency faces lawsuits and Secretary DeVos herself faces numerous allegations of conflicts of interest while serving in the cabinet.

Perhaps CAP’s third recommendation—pursuing state-level reforms—is the most promising option.

(Source: New York Times / Center for American Progress)

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