President Joe Biden plans to nominate Catherine Lhamon to lead the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Lhamon held the same position in the Obama administration.
Biden announced Lhamon’s nomination as assistant secretary for civil rights on Thursday. If confirmed, Lhamon would have a highly visible role in determining how the federal government addresses LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct and racial discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools and colleges.
Lhamon, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, is currently a domestic policy adviser at the White House, focusing on racial justice issues, and was chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2017 to 2021. She led the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights from 2013 to 2017, when the Obama administration emphasized tackling sexual assault on college campuses.
Lhamon’s nomination is the latest example of the White House steering civil rights policy back toward the Obama administration’s approach and is likely to please advocacy groups for victims of sexual assault and civil rights organizations. But she could face opposition from Republican senators who have said that the Obama administration’s Education Department overreached with its directives on Title IX, the gender equity law.
Under Lhamon’s leadership, the Education Department’s civil rights office expanded the scope of gender and racial discrimination investigations. The move drew harsh criticism from some school administrators, though advocates for victims argued that these wide-ranging probes helped more students. Lhamon also issued joint guidance with the Department of Justice in 2016 directing schools to treat students consistent with their gender identity — including allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their identity — which resulted in lawsuits by Republican state leaders.
The Trump administration scrapped the Title IX directives regarding gender identity and sexual assault investigations, and scaled back the Education Department’s civil rights probes. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also implemented a Title IX regulation that enhanced rights for students accused of sexual assault, required schools to use a narrower definition of sexual harassment and limited how schools could investigate assault allegations.
Last month, the Education Department announced that it will host a hearing on that Title IX regulation, and may rewrite the Trump-era rules.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights is also in charge of investigating racial discrimination in schools, an issue that has received increased attention over the past year amid Black Lives Matter protests. Racial justice activism has prompted many schools to take steps toward equity and teach about racial bias, but these efforts faced backlash from parents and conservative lawmakers who have asserted that the changes discriminate against white children.