Getting to Know Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon

As her teacher taught a lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the struggle to advance civil rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s then-four-year-old daughter proudly informed her class, “My mom does that!”

Lhamon has dedicated her life’s work to equity and justice. Appointed by President Obama, she is doing that as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lhamon and Vice President Biden

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon walks with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.

“My own parents were active in civil rights and I attended law school knowing I wanted to make a difference,” said Lhamon, who earned her law degree at Yale after graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College.

Before joining the administration, Lhamon was one of California’s top civil rights lawyers. She worked at the nation’s largest pro bono law firm as Director of Impact Litigation at Public Counsel. She practiced for a decade at the ACLU of Southern California as well as served as a teaching fellow and supervising attorney in the Appellate Litigation Program at Georgetown University Law Center after clerking for The Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

A mother of two young girls, Lhamon moved with her husband and children after her confirmation last summer to continue the work she loves in our nation’s capital. And while Lhamon – who was named one of California’s top 20 lawyers under 40 – brings impressive credentials to her new role, her fresh perspective is vital too.

“After 17 years in the field, I’ve mostly been the one asking government to do more. Now I’ve joined government,” she said.

Lhamon has spent nearly two decades reaching out to and fighting for the civil rights community—resulting in thick skin and extensive knowledge. While she highlights these qualities as assets, above all else, Lhamon credits the tremendous team around her for assisting in a seamless transition and continued accomplishments under her leadership.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which Lhamon heads, is a team of almost 600 people, in 12 regional offices, that she describes as “diverse, well-educated, and passionate.” Lhamon speaks fluently about the office’s ability to handle a wide range of discrimination violations, including novel cases requiring new and creative solutions. Among other cases, she cites a resolution ensuring equitable access to Advanced Placement courses for students of color and a resolution with a virtual charter school ensuring students with disabilities equitable access to their school’s website as evidence of OCR’s success. The Department’s first-ever guidance on the excessive and disproportionate use of out of school discipline was widely hailed as a vital step for the field.

Some 10,000 complaints a year are sent to OCR and Lhamon calls her predecessor’s review of these cases “breathtaking.” In recent years, OCR released guidance to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity in extracurricular athletics; clarify full requirements of Title IX in regards to sexual harassment and violence; and encourage the voluntary use of race in the interest of achieving diversity in schools.

Lhamon knows there remains no shortage of civil rights violations occurring across the country today.  She recognizes the difficulties and urgency of the moment and seeks to head an office that “uses our time well and in the process gets a lot more justice for a lot more kids.”

For the remainder of the Obama administration, she will be fighting on behalf of those kids. Lhamon’s younger daughter sees her mom as quite simply: President Obama’s lawyer. She is also every student’s lawyer—a challenging job Lhamon is eager to tackle.

Dan Griffin is a confidential assistant at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. Dear Mrs. Lhamon ,

    I am pleased that you were appointed by Our President , Mr. Obama to lead the OCR.
    Unfortunately , I have filed numerous complaints in Washington on behalf of my Special Need son( DJB of Georgia ) including through DOJ, OIG,OCR Washington and OCR in Atlanta . This will be our son’s second consecutive year of not receiving FAPE from his local District , Gwinnett County . I’ve been very disappointed with how his complaints and Appeal have been either overlooked , denied , poorly investigated , decided not to investigate allegations of FAPE , dishonesty in Evaluation letter and sadly some of the OCR attorney’s .
    Can you please look into my complaint OCR 04-13-1713 and DJ 169-19-0.
    My son ‘s son has reported him in school when he was actually absent , on vacation in Florida , on Saturday’s and Sunday’s , while in hospital working on legal biding document such as his IEP goals and objectives , falsly accusing me , and stating his HHB teacher felt threatened in our home. My son missed 152 days of school that year . He was still passed on to next school grade . His case manager wrote in his IEP , he was making minimal progress on his goals and objectives and progressing as the IEP Team had expected . Please keep in mind he was not attending school that year . Last year , a Principal from a school he has never attended sent letter he had 5 missed absences in November 2012( my son had not attended school the entire school year ).
    I asked local BOE to investigate GCSD employees , twice . Instead , an employee named in the investigation came to my home walking around in my yard , looking into my vehicle window and videotaping . The District’s legal counsel came along with him to my home . After , I filed for the documents from his visit . The local School District’s attorney , sent documents this school employee was his client . One of the many school employees, I had asked the Gwinnett Board of Education to investigate .
    Is it possible for you personally to look into my son’s complaint filed with your OCR office ‘s and send a response .His case has been investigated and denied waivers along with Appeal .However , I do have a second active Appeal through OCR in Atlanta .
    It’s nice to know you are my son’s attorney .

    Mrs. Brand
    Submitted , 03/29/2014

  2. To: Ms Catherine Lhamon–Liked your spot on Newshour on disparities in education levels for Black students. I direct your attention to the Wednesday, 3/26 San Francisco article by Carolyn Jones about a cherished mentor in Oakland who has been sponsoring students from elementary through college since the 80s. Her current idea is to open a Boarding School for kids whose home lives are so dysfunctional that they need to be physically relocated in order to succeed. I say Hooray! This has been a thought in my head throughout my teaching and administrative career in the West Contra Costa County School District. At 72, I remember Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman and Ruth Hussey as Catholics running orphanages as loving, caring administrators. When a Principal, I said that’s what we need, build dormitories right on our school grounds, have the students live there, okay to go home week-ends, with three healthy meals a day. Throw in Music, Art, Dance, and P.E teachers for afternoons after academics. In the article, Ms Brown wants this for seriously at risk students like one of my first graders years ago who threw chairs in the classroom and when I called, nobody there. What you spoke of on Newshour was true for 1973 and each year through 2000 when I retired, sad to say. We could turn out productive citizens and get much closer to solving the gaps in education using Ms. Brown’s plan and past actions. Of course, no money, kids don’t vote, etc. so it’s not going to happen and in a few years there will be another report for you to bring to our attention on Newshour. We must decide on real help as I’ve stated or resign ourselves to wringing our hands and lamenting the gaps. They won’t go away unless we do.

    Thank you for your time. Hope this reaches Ms Catherine Lhamon

  3. Secretary Lhamon’s outstanding credentials and Civil Rights’ track record speak for themselves, Mr. Rossmiller. Our nation is fortunate to have servant leaders such as she, committed to equity and social justice for minorities and women. I applaud her and respectfully ask concerned citizens to join her in this fight against institutional discrimination in public schools as we “close the school to prison pipeline” in the United States of America. Attorney Lhamon deserves our unwavering support!

  4. I just watched Ms. Lhamon on PBS Friday, March 21, 2014, She invited pertinent ideas related to the data about what the different cultures are experiencing in the US Public Education. The ultimate, unwelcome explanation may lie in the subconscious behavior of white teachers to the fact that the genes of people of color are dominant over the genes of white people. Subconsciously, the teachers would rather see blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin perpetuated rather that black hair, dark eyes, and colored skin. Until this fact surfaces, there will be no change. It’s a tough knot to untie, but until it does, the problem will continue.

    • How incredibly racist of you. As a white teacher, I don’t prefer any child other than one who is receptive to learning. Have you ever been a teacher? I challenge you to do research before spouting nonsense.

  5. Truth and justice should always prevail and govern the administration of any Public School District. Structurally, that means all parent and teacher interactions should be morally and legally subordinate to statutory custom. Codified rules & regulations found in the body of the US Civil Rights laws I belief are very broad along with a lot of misunderstanding that surrounds the statute because of emotional circumstances released by racial and gender discriminations that get even more compounded by the complaints of a diversity of adults who daily engage in the business of Education. Thus, there must be legal precedents, in bounty since the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Parents who are identified as very low to low-income need to have a better understanding of just what is a civil rights violation or not! Momentously, the new Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine Lhamon, should distinquish herself and the Administration by defining the comprehensive coverage of the law so that there can never be any room for doubt by anyone rich or poor, black or white, and even gay or straight. For example, the impact of the federal civil rights tradition as interpreted by a new generation of advocates in terms of the NCLB (Public Law 107-110) need to be further honed. So, as a full understanding comes into vogue, in terms of policies of how business is conducted by School Site Councils, English Learner Advisory Committee, and the DAC (District Advisory Committees) & its tandem or parallel organization, the DELAC. Also, please answer this final question of whether there be governing civil rights protocols in place for issues of race, class, and gender disputes on the advisory bodies that consult with Superintendents, Boards, and State Education?

  6. Hear in Coldspring Texas they have taken the time to try and stop just one student from moving forward. In October of 2012 Damon Harrison was arrested in the high School Principal office because he did not talk and tell the officer his name or address. Harrison is a emotionally disturbed 17 year old and he did not know this information. The hand cuffed him and took him to Jail. The school knew who he was and he had the right to remain silent. on the 14th of this month he called me and told me they were going to arrest him again. I tried to contact the office and did not get through to ask the principal if this would be taking place, I told Damon if he knew he was not to be on the campus to lease before they arrest you ( at 11:15 I got a call through to the principal.) .He was arrested again and they broke his glasses. He cannot see with out them and his mother has no way of getting him to the doctor. Do you think that he was done right. They violated his civil rights in October and just so happen the same officer took the call when some one called in to report Damon for walking down the street. The principal told me that they were not going to do anything to him. He was charged with resisting arrest and resisting transport ans search. What was he arrested for and why was he to be searched. He could have walked out of the school and told them he quit . That is the law in Texas. If you have an emotionally disturbed child in this area with problems you need to think twice before you send them to this school. They are leaving the children behind.

  7. Dear Secretary Lhamon;

    For these American colleges, greater than 72,917 women were denied equal athletic participation under Title IX last year. And DoE OCR is helping it continue, and neither Ms. Ali or you Ms. Lhamon have done anything to stop it.

    The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights regions are wrongfully denying enforcement of these Title IX complaints, abridging the civil rights of tens of thousands of women attending these recipient college institutions as well as hundreds of thousands of young women and girls attending secondary schools, many of which substantially disproportionate institutions fraudulently and illegally receiving federal assistance. OCR has illegally done this by circuventing
    federal APA law, dismissing thousands of valid complaints using a new regulation tool, the 20-day-Part-Three-Test letter to kill en masse complaints. If an agency wants to legally create a new regulation, it must go through a process of “notice and comment.” 5 U.S.C. § 553; which OCR has not done. OCR is breaking federal law and aiding and abbetting these colleges to discriminate women unabated. OCR appeals no longer exist having been denied for each of the following complaints.

    OCR Reference No. 02-13-2129 through 02-13-2317
    OCR Reference No. 04-13-2155 through 04‐13‐2306
    OCR Reference No. 01-13-2056 through 01-13-2155
    OCR Reference No. 05-13-2146 through 05-13-2372
    OCR Reference No. 15-13-2054 through 15-13-2135
    OCR Reference No. 06-13-2096 through 06-13-2260
    OCR Reference No. 08-13-2086 through 08-13-2137
    OCR Reference No. 11-13-2093 through 11-13-2212
    OCR Reference No. 07-13-2068 through 07-13-2208
    OCR Reference No. 03-13-2087 through 03-13-2259
    OCR Reference No. 09-13-2125 through 09-13-2245

    These filed complaints evidence a massive national collegiate cadre of recipient intuitions that maintain historical gross substantial disparities in female intercollegiate athletic participation under the purview and knowledge of OCR. Each OCR region should be required to ‘vigorously enforce” Title IX compliance with these recipient institutions as required and without prejudice against any complainant. OCR is a charade; it’s an oxymoron for civil rights. OCR was never really intended to enforce anything, for the last 40 years it has built a façade to convince the public that it does something when it is really a political arm of the executive used to grease the palms of the state’s public educational institution and NEA political power bases for educational association votes and campaign contibutions. As far as Title IX enforcement, the OCR rather serves to mitigate and minimize the speed and effect at which Title IX law can accomplish by delaying and denying equalizing women in these male dominated institutions. OCR is rife with transplants from the very same college and secondary institutions we are trying to hold accountable, OCR is the federal arm of the same public education bureaucracy + attorneys against change.

    The fact is that ONLY the federal courts through legal action has been the most reliable and effective means to getting equality for women; but it comes at great time and cost for which the change agent themselves often pays a great price and missed the benefits. For the discriminated women denied their civil rights in public schools and colleges, in the name of honesty, decency, and an obligation of our elected to ensure we truly are a country abiding by rule of law, we ask that proper inquiry into the collusion of the OCR to aid and abet continuing recipient violations of Title IX law while receiving federal assistance be investigated. Otherwise, consider that the US Department of ED and its OCR should be closed down to reduce the federal deficit, and move Title IX enforcement to the Dept. of Justice, which OCR was also effectively empowered to stop Title IX civil rights complaint violations from ever getting to the U.S. Department of Justice, that job they have done well.

    Respectfully please respond,

    Mark Rossmiller

  8. I have known Catherine through her Uncle, Reuben Clay, for many years. It does not surprise me to see her walking arm in arm with the Vice President of the United States. I would extend my warmest congratulations to the Dept. Of Education and to the people of the United States on Catherine’s appointment.

    Bob Smith

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