POLITICS
06/15/2018 10:46 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2018

EXCLUSIVE: LGBTQ Federal Employees Confronted Betsy DeVos Last Year

An employee told DeVos that discrimination can mean life or death.
Leah Millis / Reuters

A Department of Education affinity group for LGBTQ employees and allies met with Secretary Betsy DeVos last year and implored her to consider the effects the Trump administration’s actions could have on transgender students, HuffPost has learned.

The meeting took place in February 2017, the day the White House rescinded Obama-era guidance outlining protections for trans students. DeVos defended the decision in the meeting, calling the Obama guidance “clumsy” and “not done right,” according to an employee’s draft notes from the meeting obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. One of DeVos’ deputies also said the secretary had personally fought for language in the rescission letter assuring that the Department of Education would continue to protect all students.

In response, multiple employees expressed disappointment and told DeVos they disagreed with the move. One employee told her that in school districts where trans students are severely bullied, it could lead to life-or-death situations. Another took offense to DeVos referring to the Obama guidance as clumsy; he said he had helped write it. 

The employees recommended that DeVos watch Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film “Moonlight,” which explores themes of sexual identity and race. In turn, the secretary recommended the movie “Hidden Figures.”  

The Obama-era guidance, issued by the Department of Justice and Department of Education, called on school districts to allow trans students to use the restrooms and facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The 2016 guidance ran into legal trouble almost immediately after it was issued, though, with 11 states suing the Obama administration in response. Since then, multiple high-profile courts have concurred with the Obama administration’s interpretation of the protections with which schools are required to provide trans students.

During the meeting, which was put together by DeVos and her staff at the last minute, she announced that the guidance would be rescinded before it had yet been made public ― a gesture for which the employees thanked her.

DeVos told the group that rescinding the guidance was a “difficult decision,” made after many conversations with the Department of Justice. In response, employees told DeVos that while they may disagree with the decision, they “stand ready to do whatever we can to ensure that rescission is as minimally harmful to students as possible, as they need a safe place to go to school.”

The secretary also requested that the group provide her with stories from trans students, families and educators, and examples of model districts and policies.

Spokespeople from the Department of Education did not respond to HuffPost’s request for confirmation of this version of events.

Other pieces of correspondence between Department of Education employees and obtained by HuffPost through FOIA reveal some confusion among the department’s lawyers in the days leading up to the rescission.

Employees tried to decipher when a rescission might be be announced through news reports while they worked to provide the Department with legal justification for the move. One employee, the day before the guidance was axed, wrote that no one at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights had been consulted about the potential rescission to his knowledge. After the Department of Justice issued a letter announcing the move to the Supreme Court, Department of Education employees speculated that the document was a “rush job” that had not been “reviewed by career civil servants” who would have caught an inaccuracy.

Reports surfaced at the time that the guidance had been dropped at the request of Attorney General Jeff Sessions but over the objections of DeVos. Since then, though, DeVos has publicly supported the move. In her meeting with employees, DeVos said she thought this issue should be left to districts, rather than to the federal government.

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos, said that the secretary actively sought out the group for input and advice.

“She appreciated their perspectives and used several of their suggestions,” Hill told HuffPost. “Secretary DeVos regularly seeks input from those impacted by policy decisions, including people who may not agree on the policy end. She believes that open and constructive dialogue leads to better outcomes.”

In the months since the rescission of the guidance, the OCR has begun dismissing civil rights complaints filed by trans students who were not allowed access to the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, as first reported by HuffPost.

This story has been updated with Hill’s comments.

Are you a transgender student attending public school in America? If you would like to talk about your experience, I invite you to get in touch: rebecca.klein@huffpost.com.

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