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Feminist lawyers just sued the Department of Education. Here’s why.

What does the Department of Education have to hide? We’re suing because we worry it’s quite a lot.

In January, my colleagues at the National Women’s Law Center and I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law that gives us all the right to documents created by our government (with some exceptions, like records that would endanger individuals’ privacy). The purpose of the law is to promote transparency and allow us to hold our government accountable – which is only possible if you know what it’s doing. But the Department of Education hasn’t turned over a single page in response to our January letter.

That’s why NWLC, together with our co-counsel Davis Wright Tremaine, sued the U.S. Department of Education today for its failure to provide records about sexual harassment.

In our request, we asked for records related to the Department of Education’s enforcement of the federal law Title IX, which forbids sex discrimination in education, in response to complaints about sexual harassment. Specifically, we asked for the list of current sexual harassment-related complaints the Department is processing and any agreements it has entered into with schools.

A quick refresher: Title IX requires all schools that receive federal funding (which includes all public schools and many private colleges and universities) to respond promptly to reports of sexual harassment, including sexual assault, and help survivors stay in school. Under the Obama administration, thanks in large part to the leadership of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon, the Department majorly stepped up its enforcement of Title IX.

Now, though, we have reason to worry: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refuses to commit to enforcing civil rights laws, including Title IX, even though that’s literally her job. Oh, and our president brags about sexually assaulting women.

To be honest, no one really knows what the Department is doing on Title IX these days. They won’t tell us. Without that information, student survivors and their advocates (like NWLC!) can’t know if turning to the Department for help is a good idea, and we can’t push officials to improve.

That’s why the records we requested are so important, and why it’s so unjust that the Department of Education has refused to provide any records. We haven’t even received an explanation for why our request has been ignored. We sued the Department because apparently we need a federal judge to force DeVos and her agency to live up to their legal responsibilities.

You can read the complaint here.

Ed. note: This piece was originally posted at the National Women’s Law Center’s blog.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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