The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education has announced that it is scrutinizing how the department handles civil rights complaints, potentially fueling a debate over the Trump administration’s scaled-back vigilance on a hot-button issue.

Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the department has pulled back from the Obama administration’s emphasis on investigating allegations of systemic civil rights violations by school districts and colleges, instead focusing its attention on individual complaints of mistreatment, as ProPublica has reported in a series of articles.

According to its annual report released Wednesday, one of the inspector general’s priorities is determining whether the department’s civil rights division has been appropriately dismissing discrimination complaints in accordance with federal policies and procedures. OIG reviews typically assess the efficiency, effectiveness and integrity of department operations and look for fraud, waste or abuse.

“The audit is currently underway and we hope to be done in 2019,” said Catherine Grant, a public affairs liaison for the office, which is an independent entity within the department that audits federal programs and investigates internal fraud.

Grant declined to discuss details of the audit, citing a longstanding policy put “in place to protect and maintain the integrity of our efforts.” The department’s inspector general, Kathleen S. Tighe, has served in that position since 2010, and she has spent most of her career in the federal government ferreting out fraud.

Catherine Lhamon, who led the department’s civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights, said that the new audit is badly needed.

“External oversight seems more than warranted given the high dismissal rates and OCR’s whipsawing on its authority not to investigate topics Congress specifically charged it to protect,” Lhamon said. “Students deserve better from their government.”

“Our top priority in the Office for Civil Rights is ensuring all students have equal access to education free from discrimination,” an education department spokesman said in an email. “As we continue to work to improve OCR’s case processing, we welcome feedback.”

This year, ProPublica analyzed federal data on more than 40,000 civil rights cases at the Education Department, which we received through multiple public records requests. Our analysis found that the department’s civil rights office has grown more lenient in recent years.

Under the Trump administration, the department is less likely than it was under Obama to find wrongdoing by school districts and colleges on a range of issues, from racial and sexual harassment to meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

We also found that the department has scuttled more than 1,200 civil rights investigations that were inherited from the Obama administration and were open for at least six months. These cases were closed without any corrective action or findings of wrongdoing, with the department often citing insufficient evidence.

In Bryan, Texas, for example, investigators from the department’s civil rights office began looking into racial discrimination in school discipline in 2013. They uncovered several instances of black students who were punished more harshly than their white peers for the same offenses. After the Trump administration took over, the case was closed, with no finding of wrongdoing.

The Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating violations in public schools across the country, handles more than 10,000 complaints annually.

Under the Obama administration, the office prioritized broader and more time-consuming inquiries. The Trump administration has made efficiency its priority, focusing more on individual complaints, which can be resolved more quickly, and clearing its backlog of cases.

The most recent audit of the department’s civil rights office was conducted in 2015, during the Obama administration, and found that the office adequately resolved discrimination complaints in “a timely and efficient manner and in accordance with applicable policies and procedures.”

The current administration’s approach to civil rights allegations against school districts and colleges has drawn ire from Democratic senators and civil rights advocates. Several of them welcomed the announcement of the inspector general’s audit.

“We have seen shifts in policies that marginalize students of color,” said Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Our hope would be that the Education Department, with the knowledge of this investigation, will shift direction.”

Tell us if you have experienced a civil rights violation, have been involved in a complaint, or have a tip to share.

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