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College Student Defense

What does the new Secretary of Education mean for college students?

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. Whether you celebrated this ceremony or not, it is undeniable that the Biden administration means big changes for the future of education in the country.

Miguel Cardona, an experienced teacher and education administrator, was just sworn in as Biden’s new Secretary of Education. His department will be stepping in after the controversial administration of the Trump era, led by Republican activist and charter school-advocate, Betsy DeVos.

During DeVos’s time in office, the Department of Education rolled back Obama-era Title IX protections, defunded public schools in favor of privatization and school choice schemes, and deemphasized the department’s role in protecting students’ civil rights. During the final year of the Trump administration, we saw education all over the country immobilized by the COVID -19 pandemic. Now we ask: how will Cardona face these challenges and controversies?

We can make some guesses about the new Department of Education’s agenda over the next four years. Here’s what DC Student Defense attorney, Shanon Wu, predicts: 

Campus Sexual Assault

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex. Since the 1970s, courts have interpreted this law as protection against sexual harassment and assault on college campuses.

During DeVos’s tenure as Education Secretary, the department rolled back policy guidelines from the Obama administration that encouraged schools to take accusations of sexual assault seriously and established a process for pursuing disciplinary action. In their place, DeVos’s department implemented a new set of rules, changing many of the requirements for how schools handle sexual assault accusations.

The most significant of these rules included the following:

  • Schools are only responsible for responding to sexual assault accusations that are filed officially through a Title IX coordinator or similar authority figure
  • Schools are now required to hold a live hearing with cross-examination of both parties
  • Schools should begin the process with an “innocent until proven guilty” mentality
  • Schools are now encouraged to adopt a “clear and convincing” standard of evidence — which is much higher than the previous standard, “preponderance of the evidence”

During the campaign, President Biden promised to counteract these Trump-era policy changes, stating on his campaign website, “Any backstepping on Title IX is unacceptable. The Biden Administration will restore the Title IX guidance for colleges.

However, in the month since taking office, Biden has not used his executive power to take any action to restore these Title IX guidelines. Still, the Department of Education will likely not be issuing any new rules or guidelines soon.

Moreover, it may be difficult for the Biden administration to undo the Trump-era policies because of the mechanism that DeVos’s Department of Education used to implement them. Additionally, it is unclear what, if any, new rules will be announced in their place.

Civil rights

One of the other major differences between Devos and Cardona will likely be their approach toward civil rights protections in education. Here are a few potential changes that may be made:

  • Enacting new civil rights policies: Overall, DeVos’s administration focused on responding to individual civil rights complaints, rather than collecting data about systemic inequities and enacting policy changes to address these issues. By contrast, Biden’s Education Department has already announced a national survey to gather data on the effects of schools re-opening by race, income, disability, and other demographic metrics.
  • Reinstating disability rights protections: In addition, Cardona’s department is expected to address some of the damage the previous administration did to disability protections in education. Under DeVos, the Department of Education rolled back existing guidelines and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, and decreased the rate of response to disability rights complaints.
  • Defending equal opportunity for transgender students: Finally, Cardona has voiced his support for the rights of transgender students to have equal opportunity and access in educational settings. In response to questions about transgender girls participating in girls’ sports competitions, Cardona responded, “The Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on gender is illegal.”

College students can probably expect to see new guidelines on civil rights protections at colleges and universities throughout the next four years, as well as an increased emphasis on protecting the civil rights of transgender and disabled students.

COVID -19

The effect that a new Education Secretary will have on higher education’s response to the COVID -19 pandemic is less clear, however.

Cardona has claimed that schools can re-open safely, even if the majority of teachers and students have not been vaccinated yet. Teachers’ unions have fought hard for better safety precautions for students and staff, and many argue that school re-opening is happening too fast and with too little planning.

But this debate has mostly centered around K-8 and high schools, leaving public and private colleges free to dictate their own policy balancing in-person learning with safety from COVID -19 infection.

However, a general move toward re-opening schools in the culture of the United States could potentially mean colleges and universities will transition toward more in-person learning. The best way to find out is to pay close attention to your school’s student outreach and policy announcements for any news of changes in their COVID-19 policy.

Protect your rights as a student in DC

It remains to be seen how many of Biden’s campaign promises his Department of Education will live up to, and what effects these policy changes will have on colleges and universities. But regardless of who is Education Secretary, there are certains rights you have as a student that no politician can take away.

Whether you are accused of a code of conduct violation, or your school is infringing on your right to privacy, DC Student Defense can help. We have the experience to protect your rights as a student and help protect your academic future. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

These materials have been prepared by Cohen Seglias for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

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