The U.S. Department of Education reminded schools Tuesday that they’re obligated under federal civil rights law to protect students from discrimination amid a nationwide spike in antisemitic and Islamophobic acts and threats on school campuses since the Israel-Hamas war broke out a month ago.
The Nov. 7 “Dear Colleague” letter from Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, came days after the Biden administration announced the launch of a national strategy to fight Islamophobia. It also arrived as the president has come under increasing criticism from Muslim-American leaders for his support of the Israeli government as it carries out airstrikes in Gaza and blocks food, fuel, and medicine from entering the Hamas-controlled territory following the militant group’s deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
The administration also launched an effort to fight antisemitism in May, when it issued another reminder to schools about their responsibilities under federal anti-discrimination law.
Schools, including K-12 campuses and colleges and universities, have seen a rise in “disturbing antisemitic incidents and threats to Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students,” according to the letter from the Education Department.
The department’s office for civil rights received 12 complaints of discrimination based on shared ancestry—the category that covers antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents—between Oct. 7 and Nov. 7. Of those complaints, one stemmed from an incident at a K-12 school while the rest stemmed from situations at colleges or universities, a department spokesperson said.
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he’s asking Congress for more funding to expedite investigations into those situations.
The Education Department doesn’t receive a civil rights complaint about every alleged act of discrimination.
Schools had even seen a rise in hate crimes predating the current spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism. Some 842 hate crimes occurred at elementary or secondary schools in 2022, according to the FBI’s latest hate crimes statistics report. That’s nearly 300 more than in 2021.
“Hate-based discrimination, including based on antisemitism and Islamophobia among other bases, have no place in our nation’s schools,” Lhamon said in the “Dear Colleague” letter.
Outside of school campuses, the recent rise in Islamophia and antisemitism has been perhaps most prominently marked by the stabbing death of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Illinois and the stabbing of his mother.
What the law says
Public schools are required to provide all students with an environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the letter noted.
Schools that receive federal funding must address discrimination against students of any religious group when it involves “racial, ethnic, or ancestral slurs or stereotypes,” according to the letter. They must also address discrimination based on a student’s skin color, physical features, or style of dress that reflects ethnic or religious traditions and any discrimination “based on where a student came from or is perceived to have come from.” That extends to discrimination based on a student’s accent, name, or use of a foreign language.
Schools are required to take immediate action to address any sort of harassment related to race, religion, and ethnicity that creates a hostile environment, even if the conduct isn’t directed at a specific individual, the letter said. The Education Department’s office for civil rights interprets federal law to define a hostile environment as any unwelcome conduct based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics that is subjectively and objectively offensive and so pervasive that it denies a student the ability to benefit from or participate in an education program or activity.
The department’s May letter reminding schools about their responsibilities to address antisemitism included a fact sheet with examples of incidents that would prompt the office for civil rights to investigate a school for a potential violation of federal civil rights law.
For example, if a student informed a teacher that classmates routinely placed notes with swastikas on their backpack, performed Nazi salutes, and made jokes about the Holocaust, and the teacher responded, “Just ignore it,” without taking any action to address or stop the harassment, that would be a violation of the law.
If a school failed to address reports of students telling their Muslim classmates “You started 9/11,” or calling them a “terrorist,” that would also violate Title VI, according to the fact sheet.