OurFuture.org: DeVos Denies Civil Rights and Stifles Dissent. But She’s a Victim?

A favorite media tactic of right-wing policymakers is to claim they are the victims whenever those who’ve had their civil rights or their political voices stifled by their policies make grievances known, and advocate for change.

It’s a clever way to turn blatant discrimination into a rallying cry for “freedom,” and undermine the constitutional right to protest.

It appears U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has now been well schooled in this rhetorical trick.

Shortly after news reports that long-time Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz had been brought in to school DeVos on how to talk about controversial education policies without igniting the ire of parents, teachers, and voters, she played the “victim” card in saying criticisms of her actions as secretary have been “hurtful.”

“[It’s] hurtful to me when I’m criticized for not upholding the rights of students, the civil rights of students,” she told Politico. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For DeVos, one of the wealthiest people in America, and an influential shaper of the party that currently controls all branches of government, to express vulnerability seems disingenuous, to say the least. It becomes all the more preposterous amidst the recent actions of the department she leads to undo progress in civil rights and undermine democracy.

In her first year as secretary, DeVos has established a consistent pattern of first delaying then eventually curtailing her department’s duties to uphold the civil rights of students. And despite her role as a government official, she’s demonstrated little interest in hearing what the public thinks about these actions.

Teachers, parents, and students who recently showed up at the Department of Education to express their dissent were locked out.

Denying the Rights of Transgender Students

Victims of DeVos’s education department include transgender students who want the freedom to use school bathroom facilities that correspond with their gender preferences.

This was their right under the Obama administration, and courts in at least three states – WisconsinVirginia, and Maine – have ruled that federal codes enforced by Title IX protect the rights of these students.

But beginning a year ago, DeVos’s education department decided it didn’t like these laws, began to deny their enforcement fell in its jurisdiction, and dismissed complaints from students who claimed arbitrary school rules were forcing them into situations that made them feel uncomfortable or subjected them to bullying.

Now, the department has officially announced it “won’t investigate or take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity,” BuzzFeed reported.

While protecting transgender students when they are “penalized or harassed” is still “prohibited,” according to a department spokesperson, those prohibitions apparently no longer extend to bathrooms.

Since when did people’s rights end at the bathroom door?

Leaving Minority Students Unprotected

DeVos and her department have also signaled their intentions to ignore their duties to take on racial disparities in special education and school discipline policies.

Numerous studies have shown that black and brown school children are disproportionally identified as “learning disabled.” Other studies have found the opposite is true. But it seems reasonable that given the evidence that discrimination – of some kind – against nonwhite students in special education occurs, schools should devote resources to identify and address racial bias in their programs when it shows up.

That is what the Obama administration ruled when it required states to look for racial disparities in special education programs and devote a portion of their federally funded resources to ensure fairness in the identification, placement, and discipline of those students.

The new guidelines were to go into effect this month, giving states a full year to prepare, but DeVos and her department have now issued a two-year delay for “public comment.”

State leaders overseeing special education, who have been preparing to comply with these rules for months, say “they want the rule kept in place,” according to Education Week.

But much in the same way DeVos and her department first delayed and then dropped enforcements of transgender student rights, before eventually announcing a complete denial to enforce them, it’s not hard to imagine this “delay” in special education guidance is the forerunner to eventually abandoning the rules altogether.

Blocking and Locking Out Dissent

DeVos’s troubling history of political influence and her actions as secretary have made her President Trump’s most disliked cabinet member, and she’s constantly confronted with protests wherever she goes.

To shield her from public interaction, DeVos is escorted by federal marshals, an unprecedented security measure at great cost to the taxpayer. Her publically released schedule routinely omits many of the events and meetings she participates in. A recent trip she took to Indianapolis was completely “covert.” And many of the public events where she speaks have been before audiences that align with her political views.

The latest tactic to guard DeVos from the public was to lock the doors of the Department of Education.

Recently when leaders of two national teachers’ unions and 50-odd members representing a coalition of education and civil rights groups tried to deliver 80,000 report cards assessing DeVos’s performance, they were locked out.

Close to 90 percent of the report cards filled out by educators and public school activists gave DeVos an F, according to Education Week.  “A common theme: that DeVos was not doing her job because she appears not to care about public schools.”

“We were locked out,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers told Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. “We asked for an appointment, but they locked us out instead.”

The doors are normally open 24 hours a day, Strauss reported.

DeVos Threatens Our Democracy, Our Future

A year ago, shortly after DeVos took office amidst a storm of controversy, a well-known conservative cartoonist depicted her as a victim of civil rights abuse by inserting her image substituted for Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend racially integrated schools in New Orleans in 1960, in a cartoon rendition of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

The false equivalency of a billionaire white woman, able to buy her way into a U.S. Cabinet position to a six-year-old black girl who helped desegregate New Orleans public schools, sparked a firestorm of media outrage.

But it’s business as usual for Republicans.

People like DeVos are not victims of anything. She and the rightwing political machine funded by the Koch Brothers want to get rid of public education, because they don’t believe in civil rights and democracy. These radical factions have made public schools one of their top targets, a progressive plum at least as important, if not more so, as Medicare and Social Security.

Speaking before the locked doors of the Department of Education, Keron Blair, co-director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, declared the protestors were there to speak out against DeVos’s “deliberate and stated purpose” to undermine her department’s mission and dismantle public education.

“Betsy DeVos and her agenda are a legitimate threat to our democracy,” Blair said, “We will not stand idly by while she dismantles public education and threatens our future.”

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...