Given heightened fears of terrorism and recent global events, schools and higher education institutions should take extra steps to ensure that students are “free from discrimination and harassment based on their race, religion, or national origin,” leaders of the U.S. Department of Education said in guidance issued to educators Monday.
“A focus on these protections, while always essential, is particularly important amid international and domestic events that create an urgent need for safe spaces for students,” said a “Dear Colleague” letter signed by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and acting Secretary John King.
“Moreover, because parents and students look to you for leadership, their hearing from you that such conduct is unconditionally wrong and will not be tolerated in our schools will make a real difference,” the letter said.
“In response to recent and ongoing issues, we also urge you to anticipate the potential challenges that may be faced by students who are especially at risk of harassment—including those who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color,” the letter continues. “For example, classroom discussions and other school activities should be structured to help students grapple with current events and conflicting viewpoints in constructive ways, and not in ways that result in the targeting of particular students for harassment or blame.”
Following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., civil rights organizations reported heightened concerns about school-based harrassment for Muslim students. Sikh students, often misidentified as Muslim, faced similar harassment after 9/11.
And discussions about limiting the flow of Muslims or refugees to the United States further stirred concerns.
The Education Department urged schools not to ignore conduct that may range “from abusive name-calling to defamatory graffiti to physical violence directed at a student because of a student’s actual or perceived race or ancestry, the country the student’s family comes from, or the student’s religion or cultural traditions.”
“If ignored, this kind of conduct can jeopardize students’ ability to learn, undermine their physical and emotional well-being, provoke retaliatory acts, and exacerbate community conflicts,” the letter said.
At the same time, schools should provide a safe space for “open and constructive dialogue” that may be difficult, the letter said.
Students likely need a place to process international events and resulting fears, some of which they may be absorbing from their parents.
A recent Gallup poll shows that American concern about terrorism has reached its highest point in 10 years after the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Paris.
“In the survey completed last week, the percentage of Americans who said terror was the most critical problem [the country faces] jumped 13 points, from 3 to 16 percent,” the Washington Post reported. “That’s about one-sixth of the country.”
The letter urges schools to ensure that systems for reporting and responding to bullying and harrassment are understood by all students and staff. It includes links to federal resources on issues like student harrassment, discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin, and refugee and asylee students.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.