The National Women’s Law Center has sued the Department of Education in an effort to pry loose a trove of data related to the agency’s oversight and rules enforcement related to sexual harassment in U.S. schools.
The nonprofit, which advocates for women’s rights, claims the Department of Education failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petition in January for data that are “a matter of public concern,” according to the complaint filed Monday in a federal court in Washington, D.C. (Read the full complaint below.)
The NWLC argued that the Education Department’s data on Title IX ― the education law that bars sex-based discrimination, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, at schools that receive federal funding ― is needed to understand how the department is handling Title IX enforcement under Donald Trump’s administration. The department typically released such data annually under President Barack Obama.
Radio silence from the Department of Education in response to our simple request ... is totally unacceptable. Fatima Goss Graves, president-elect of the National Women's Law Center
The group filed a request in late January seeking records related to sexual harassment cases pending before the department’s Office of Civil Rights that include compliance reviews, information on how cases were resolved, investigations and other data.
Agencies typically have 20 days to acknowledge a FOIA request, at which point they can grant a request or specify why one was denied. According to the NWLC’s complaint, the Education Department denied the FOIA petition “due to the backlog of requests and the competing demands for the time of staff that are working to respond to [NWLC’s] request.”
The department didn’t say when it might be able to reply. Months later, the group said, it has heard nothing and still doesn’t have the records it’s seeking.
“Radio silence from the Department of Education in response to our simple request to see documents about its enforcement of prohibitions against sexual harassment in schools is totally unacceptable,” NWLC President-elect Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The issue is even more pressing, the NWLC argues, because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been noncommittal when it comes to keeping the stricter Title IX enforcement guidelines that were instituted during the Obama administration.
The Obama-era guidelines, outlined in a 2011 letter, included nonbinding policies on standards of evidence and timelines for investigations. During her January confirmation hearing, DeVos said “it would be premature” for her to decide whether the department should continue to follow Obama’s letter.
“There is a lot at stake,” Goss Graves added. “Without the release of these documents, students, families and advocates are kept in the dark about whether the department is enforcing legal protections for student survivors of sexual harassment and rape. Without their release, survivors won’t know if they can trust the government to intervene on their behalf.
The Obama-era rules were due in part to what was seen as campuses shirking their responsibilities under Title IX and often mishandling reports of sexual violence.
Since April 2011, the Department of Education has conducted 397 investigations related to colleges allegedly mishandling such reports, 355 of which are currently active, according to a database by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Goss Graves said that, without the release of the data, “it will be harder for victims to hold their schools accountable for their Title IX violations.”