Federal investigation of New College focusing on alleged disability discrimination

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The U.S. Department of Education said Monday that the agency's discrimination investigation into New College of Florida stemmed from a complaint filed Aug. 24 that the school's website was not accessible for people with disabilities − not a separate complaint of alleged discrimination and the creation of a hostile environment by school leaders filed two days earlier.

The agency, which had not responded to earlier requests for comment, clarified the distinction in a phone interview Monday. In a letter to New College Interim President Richard Corcoran last week, the DOE had said it plans to investigate New College on whether it "excluded qualified persons with disabilities from participation in, denied them the benefits of, or otherwise subjected them to discrimination in its programs, activities, aids, benefits, or services."

The federal agency said it also plans to investigate whether New College failed to ensure that its communications with individuals with disabilities were as effective as its communications with others.

On Aug. 22, a separate complaint was filed to the DOE that alleged an ongoing trend of discrimination against "protected groups" such as LGBTQ students, and the creation of a hostile environment toward those students. The complaint pointed to actions taken by the college's board and administration, singling out conservative anti-diversity policy activist and trustee Christopher Rufo, appointed in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis, for fostering a hostile environment.

The DOE spokesperson would not confirm the status of the latter complaint, though emails obtained by the Herald-Tribune suggest that the department had received it. The spokesperson said the timing of the agency letter to Corcoran informing the college of the disability discrimination investigation, which came the day the Herald-Tribune published a report on the filing of the LGBTQ+ discrimination complaint, was coincidental.

Rufo reacted online to the DOE letter Friday, linking it to the Aug. 22 LGBTQ+ civil rights complaint.

"The fight for New College of Florida has taken another turn," he wrote on his substack. "Earlier today the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the Sarasota-based university, where I serve as a trustee, for alleged 'discrimination on the basis of disability.'

"The investigation stems from a complaint filed by unnamed 'students, faculty and staff' alleging, in part, that the college's trustees and administrators violated civil rights law by removing 'gender neutral' signage from bathrooms, defunding the DEI and gender studies programs, and 'misgendering' the former DEI director, who uses 'ze/zir' psuedo-pronouns."

Responding Monday to a request late Friday for comment on the DOE investigation, a college spokesman Nathan March issued a statement saying the Aug. 22 complaint was only sent to media outlets and not to the college. He said it detailed false claims only meant to grab headlines.

It also stressed that the DOE was only investigating the college on the basis of disability discrimination.

"It is important to note that the only claim that is being looked into is the disability compliance claim, of which we are confident the DOE will also find to be without merit," March said.

No additional details on the Aug. 24 complaint regarding the disability compliance issues with the college's website were available.

Rufo, who was named several times in Aug. 22 complaint for allegedly creating a hostile environment for students, had commented on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, on Friday that "It’s time to abolish the Department of Education.”

On his substack, he wrote that President Joe Biden was weaponizing the DOE against conservatives.

“This is a brazen attempt to subvert the democratic governance of New College and entrench left-wing ideological programs under the guise of civil rights law," he wrote, later adding, "We are ready for the fight. When Governor DeSantis appointed the new board of trustees, he told us: 'If the media isn’t attacking you, you’re not doing your job.' The same could be said of the Biden Administration.”

A screenshot of a Twitter post from Christopher Rufo. Rufo was named in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education where it accused the trustee of creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students at New College of Florida.
A screenshot of a Twitter post from Christopher Rufo. Rufo was named in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education where it accused the trustee of creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students at New College of Florida.

New College has been undergoing a conservative transformation since January, when DeSantis appointed a new majority to its Board of Trustees tasked with shaping the small liberal arts school into the "Hillsdale College of the South." in reference to the private, conservative Christian liberal arts school in Michigan.

The trustees swiftly dissolved the college's diversity departmentabolished the gender studies programfired an LGBTQ librarian and denied tenure to five faculty members set to receive it.

As the changes have been implemented, more than a third of faculty have left New College causing course cancellations and staffing vacancies for the fall semester. The college also faces an ongoing housing crisis because of the record number of incoming students. Hundreds of students are living in hotel rooms due to mold in dorms and the preferential assignment of new student-athletes to the remaining available housing.

The actions sought from the DOE in response to the Aug. 24 complaint are not clear and a copy of the complaint was not immediately available. The agency said a formal federal Freedom of Information Act request was required.

The Aug. 22 complaint asks that New College be required to implement mandatory training for staff, administration, and the Board of Trustees on supporting LGBTQ and minority students.

The complaint also asks that federal departments order the college's leadership to rescind discriminatory policies and directives, and provide safe and equivalent housing for students who wish to live on campus.

Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at sbwalker@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: New College: federal investigation will find complaint "without merit"