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Mary Sanchez: Feds to limit civil rights probes in schools

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Mary Sanchez, Syndicated Columnist

The 8 million African-American children enrolled in the nation's public schools at some point in their studies will learn about the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. This landmark court case, decided in 1954, struck down state laws establishing separate public schools segregated by race.

Mary Sanchez
Mary Sanchez

They will learn that the court, in resolving a particular complaint raised in a particular school district, addressed a systemic injustice. The civil rights the court protected in Topeka, Kansas, would be protected everywhere in the United States.

The idea that race discrimination can be systemic has guided education policy ever since, but the Trump administration aims to change that. Starting next year, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will begin to treat accusations of discriminatory behavior in public education differently. Instead of investigating complaints with an open-ended, broad perspective to find out if a problem is widespread, cases will be adjudicated in isolation.

New department guidelines due to be finalized in 2018 remove the word "systemic." Schools will have more latitude to handle discrimination cases, and the current appeals process will be eliminated. The department will be able reach agreements with schools and districts without making parents privy to the findings.

To unwary observers, this might seem like a minor tweak. Some might even fall for the lame excuse the White House gave in November when plans of this change were leaked. The White House offered the rationale that investigations take too long, and that complainants deserve quicker outcomes. Expediency is an admirable standard, but it shouldn't come at the cost of missing -- and therefore not resolving -- broader problems.

Under the sort of limited gaze set out in the department's new standards, Brown vs. Board of Education might be seen more as a tiff between a handful of parents and the school where they wished their children to attend. And a far-reaching remedy would be out of the question.

There are times when the federal government needs to take a stand against systemic discrimination. Ingrained discriminatory attitudes -- and the policies and practices they give rise to --cause problems in policing, hiring, lending and many other aspects of public and private life in the United States.

The Brown ruling did not end systemic discrimination in education. That's why, in 1979, 25 years after the ruling, the Office for Civil Rights was established to ensure fairness by race, color, national origin, age and sex. Under President Obama, it expanded to cover sexual orientation and gender identity and physical handicaps as well.

There is a rhetorical strain in American politics, now best exemplified by President Trump and his Republican allies, that decries this as government meddling, that denies that bias can be systemic. Rather, it's one bad cop, one bad manager or one bad loan officer who is to blame. What a convenient way to dodge seeing how discrimination is more likely to work in modern times. Just put the blinders on.

Public pressure may quash these changes at the Department of Education. But as we've seen with any number of Trump's decisions, raising the hue and cry of liberals is part of the payoff. Trump's dogged determination to be "politically incorrect," to pursue any deplorable policy idea to its conclusion, wins the most ardent praise of his admirers.

Make no mistake: What has been proposed for the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will amount to dismantling its effectiveness.

And, as with every evil deed this administration commits, it comes with a smarmy PR justification. When asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education reportedly said, "Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long."

What a perfect misappropriation of sentiment. When it comes to discrimination in public education, justice is sidelined not by paperwork backlogs but by attitudes of bias, through systems that don't fairly address problems because they've developed to shelter the offenders, not the victims of unfair treatment.

These are the very sort of obstacles to fairness in education that the broader investigative efforts were designed to solve. And they are the obstacles the Trump administration hopes to keep firmly in place.

MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.