As Feds Roll Back Civil Rights for Students, Educators Step in to Protect Them


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As the Trump Administration and the DeVos Department of Education attempt to rollback federal civil rights and protections for students, educators are joining with parents and students to ensure all students are protected. To support this groundswell of action, NEA is rolling out Protecting Our Students Civil Rights, a guide to the best and strongest local organizing and policy work across the country.

Educators on the frontlines are making sure that students are protected by creating and passing policies at the district level that protect their rights.

Check out the highlights of our interview with Eric Harrington from NEA’s Office of General Counsel.


Why is it necessary to promote strengthening students civil rights protections right now?

Eric Harrington: We saw a spike in toxic and racist activity in schools before the 2016 election—a rise in anti-Semitism, homophobia, pejorative racial slurs, reports of students having the Hijab ripped off their heads. Following the election we have seen a further escalation of these type of activities.

In this administration we have a President who equates organizing for social justice with people who organize neo-Nazi, white supremacist and KKK activities. We are seeing students and parents who may hold racist and intolerant views take their cues from President Trump and feel like harassment is justified. Compounding this is a Department of Education that refuses to enforce the civil rights protections of our students.


Can you explain a little more about how the Trump Administration is creating this confusion?

EH: A good example is transgender student rights and protections. Just last week, the DeVos Department of Education confirmed it is no longer investigating civil rights complaints from transgender students barred from school bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Yet federal courts, with near unanimity, have supported the rights of transgender students and upheld their rights to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. Federal courts decide what the law is but the Education Department is charged with enforcing the law. The Department’s refusal to accept complaints of transgender discrimination, much less investigate them, is creating confusion and results in under-enforcement of transgender rights.

School districts are filling this gap by putting in place more comprehensive protections for their transgender students. Federal protections are the floor, not the ceiling.


What are educators doing and what are they asking for?

EH: Educators are organizing and asking for ways to protect students and create a safe affirming environment for all. We are marshalling resources to stop harassment in schools.

Locally educators along with their local unions are stepping up in a big way. They are at the forefront of fighting for civil rights of our students in ways that we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights Movement.

NEA is supporting these efforts by identifying and developing strong model policies. NEA offers guidance on protections for immigrant and undocumented students, transgender inclusive policies, sexual harassment rules and anti-discrimination guidelines.

Have you seen any trends in how and where these policies have been implemented?

EH: First, I would say that educators are excellent organizers. They build coalitions with students and the community. They have powerful stories to tell, and are deeply connected to their students and communities. In addition, they see firsthand the impact strong local policy protecting students’ civil rights can have on their student’s lives and the broader school climate.

While people may expect this to be happening in the liberal enclaves like Berkeley, we actually see these policies moving in more conservative places. We are seeing action in places like San Diego, California where educators organized and the School Board launched a new initiative to make its schools safer and more welcoming for Muslim students or in Frederick, Maryland where they passed the first-ever transgender student protections.

Together educators, students and communities are standing up to strengthen protections for all students. But while this organizing is happening in districts across the country, there is an opportunity for many more districts to step up and make a deeper commitment to our students’ civil rights.

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