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DEI hotline already receiving bogus complaints before law is enacted

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Spenser Heaps
/
Utah News Dispatch
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, May 6, 2024.

Within 24 hours of releasing a hotline form to report alleged violations to the state’s new diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions that take effect July 1, Utah’s Office of the State Auditor received at least 18 bogus complaints.

The goal of posting the form three weeks ahead of the law’s implementation, State Auditor John Dougall said, was to receive feedback from the public. He expects DEI complaints to be fewer compared to the flood of hoax complaints his office received through its hotline to report violations of HB257, which restricts transgender people from publicly-owned bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with.

The bathroom hotline quickly received more than 12,000 tips, but only five seemed to be made “in good faith.” At least four of them were unsubstantiated.

The state auditor’s role in HB261, which restricts DEI initiatives in public entities, is narrower, as it won’t deal with public education institutions — those tips should be directed to Utah State Board of Education or the Utah Board of Higher Education.

The Board of Higher Education passed a policy last Thursday that allows individuals to submit reports of alleged violations through an EthicsPoint system — a confidential incident reporting software — or by contacting the board’s secretary to discuss other reporting options, said board secretary Alison Adams.

A link to the reporting tool will become available before July 1, according to a board public information officer. Other institutions with EthicsPoint systems can forward the board any complaints that may be submitted to them as well.

It’s still unclear how the State Board of Education will handle complaints. However, the entity already has an internal audit process for all concerns in the K-12 public school system.

“(An) interesting thing is we get complaints. We investigate complaints, but there’s actually no enforcement mechanism,” Dougall said.

The new law is not meant to defund any programs, sponsors of the bill have said, but to extend services and opportunities to all, regardless of their identity traits. While it bans DEI submissions and trainings as a condition of employment or admissions, it also includes a list of exceptions to protect funding, some private scholarships, and health care questions and concerns.

Since the bill’s approval, higher education institutions, such as the state’s flagship school, the University of Utah, have dismantled or renamed their DEI offices. While some are restructuring its cultural centers — like the U.’s American Indian Resource Center, Black Cultural Center and Dream Center — others, such as Weber State University, have taken a more aggressive approach to ensure compliance with the law.

Upon request, the state auditor is required to present their findings to the Legislative Management Committee. But, not having a clear enforcement system “is kind of odd,” Dougall said. The office is figuring out those processes and timelines as they move forward.

“We will screen them to try and determine which ones we think are legitimate. And then we will prioritize and then go investigate those. I anticipate we will inform a governmental entity if we see something that we think isn’t compliant or causes concern,” Dougall said. “That’s what we would normally do. So I assume that we’ll probably do that in this case as well.”

Dougall has audited some DEI-related issues in the past, he said. He said he’s up to speed with both the “good intentioned” programs and how those could go “off the rails.”

“Sometimes we can use (DEI) as a litmus test to stifle certain people to apply for jobs or can become effectively a speech code for some individuals,” Dougall said. “And at the end of the day, the government really should be focused on treating all people equally.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.