Biden’s Pick for Education Dept.’s Civil Rights Chief Squeaks Through Senate

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WASHINGTON — A divided Senate confirmed Catherine E. Lhamon as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights on Wednesday after she faced intense criticism from Republicans, who questioned her views on transgender students’ rights and how schools should address sexual misconduct.

The Senate voted 50 to 50 along party lines, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.

Ms. Lhamon, who was confirmed unanimously to the same post under former President Barack Obama in 2013, carried out some of Mr. Obama’s most aggressive civil rights initiatives. During her tenure, the Education Department pursued a broad range of civil rights investigations into colleges and universities accused of mishandling complaints about sexual assaults on campus, as well as into K-12 schools accused of discriminating against minority and special education students.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is charged with enforcing laws prohibiting discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, has 12 offices throughout the country.

Democrats called for Ms. Lhamon’s confirmation ahead of the vote, praising her previous tenure. President Biden submitted her nomination in May, but a Senate committee deadlocked on whether to advance it, leading the full Senate to take up a motion to move forward with her nomination.

“She has the experience, the leadership and the dedication to stand up for students from all walks of life, something sorely lacking under the previous administration,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on the Senate floor before the vote.

But some of her past work made Ms. Lhamon a lightning rod for conservatives who believed that she bent civil rights law to the Obama administration’s will.

Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, called Ms. Lhamon’s track record “deeply troubling if not outright disqualifying.”

“Ms. Lhamon has a history of using inflammatory rhetoric, violating students’ constitutionally-based right to due process, and abusing regulatory power,” Mr. Burr said in a statement after the committee vote in August.

During her confirmation hearing in July, Republicans grilled Ms. Lhamon on how she would reshape Title IX regulations, which prohibit sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. Under Betsy DeVos, former President Donald J. Trump’s education secretary, the department bolstered the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct, prompting a backlash from victims’ rights groups. Ms. DeVos called on senators to reject Ms. Lhamon’s confirmation ahead of the vote.

Ms. Lhamon denounced Ms. DeVos’s rules, although she said she would continue to enforce them until they were rewritten.

“The regulation permits students to rape and sexually harass with impunity,” she said at her confirmation hearing. “The regulation has weakened the intent of Title IX that Congress wrote.”

Enforcement of the law has become a contentious issue, especially after the Obama administration issued guidance that advised schools to ramp up investigations of campus sexual misconduct.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Ms. Lhamon’s confirmation “does not bode well for those who believe Title IX must be enforced in a manner that takes the rights of complainants and those they accuse equally seriously.” He added, however, that Ms. Lhamon could “prove us wrong” by pursing policy “that respects the rights of accusers and accused alike.”

Ms. Lhamon also faced questions at the hearing about her views on transgender women and girls competing in women’s sports. Some states have moved to require public schools and universities to have athletes compete according to their sex assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity.

“The promise of Title IX is that no person shall be subject to discrimination on the basis of sex,” Ms. Lhamon said. “So I could not countenance discriminating against any student in the context of Title IX.”

In 2016, Ms. Lhamon helped lead the Obama administration’s effort to direct public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Ms. Lhamon also vowed to rebuild the Office for Civil Rights, saying that she was “devastated” about its loss of staff during the Trump administration. She also pledged to enforce race, sex and disability discrimination laws in an “evenhanded manner.”

Under the Trump administration, the department rolled back several Obama-era civil rights policies, including the protections allowing transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, guidelines that encouraged colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions to promote diversity, and rules directing schools not to discipline minority students at higher rates.

In June, the Education Department said that transgender students were protected under Title IX, reversing the Trump-era policy. Ms. Lhamon has said she believes there should be civil rights guidance on school discipline, signaling that the department will restore some version of rules that Ms. DeVos rescinded.

Mr. Biden directed the Education Department in March to conduct an expansive review of its policies on sex and gender discrimination and violence in schools, kick-starting his pledge to dismantle the Trump-era sexual misconduct rules.

Ms. Lhamon, a Yale Law School graduate, received her bachelor’s degree from Amherst College. In her testimony before the Senate committee this summer, she said she became a lawyer after hearing the stories of her mother, who attended racially segregated schools while growing up in Virginia. She said the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education helped shape her mother’s understanding of justice.

Ms. Lhamon left the Education Department in 2017 to serve as chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She also served as legal affairs secretary to Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.

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