The Biden administration is warning U.S. schools and colleges that they must take immediate action to stop antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, citing an “alarming rise” in threats and harassment.
In a Tuesday letter, the Education Department said there’s “renewed urgency” to fight discrimination against students during the Israel-Hamas war. The letter reminds schools of their legal duty to protect students and intervene to stop harassment that disrupts their education.
“Hate-based discrimination, including based on antisemitism and Islamophobia among other bases, have no place in our nation’s schools,” wrote Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the department.
Universities have faced mounting criticism over their response to the war and its reverberations at U.S. schools. Jewish and Muslim students on many campuses say too little is being done to keep them safe. Protests have sometimes turned violent including at a recent demonstration at Tulane University, while threats of violence have upended campuses including Cornell University.
The Education Department offered few specifics on how colleges should respond, and it did little to answer questions about where to draw the line between political speech and harassment. Instead, it outlined schools’ broad duties under the Civil Rights Act.
It says schools must intervene to stop conduct that is “objectively offensive and is so severe or pervasive that it limits or denies a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s education program or activity.” It urged schools to “be vigilant in protecting your students’ rights.”
The Education Department investigates reports of civil rights violations at schools and universities. Institutions can face penalties up to a loss of federal money.
Meeting with a group of Jewish students from Baltimore-area colleges last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he was “appalled and horrified” by incidents of antisemitism on U.S. campuses. He vowed to support universities as they work to protect students from all backgrounds.
In other actions, federal law enforcement officials have partnered with campus police to assess threats and improve security. Last week the Education Department added language to a federal complaint form clarifying that certain forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia are prohibited by federal civil rights law.
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