U.S. Department of Education Reminds Schools of Their Legal Obligation to Address Discrimination, Including Harassment

As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s continued efforts to take aggressive action to address the alarming rise in reports of antisemitic, Islamophobic and other hate-based or bias-based incidents at schools and on college campuses since the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas conflict, last week the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a new Dear Colleague Letter reminding schools of their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) to provide all students, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian, a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

The Biden-Harris administration is implementing the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, and the White House also announced last week that the Biden-Harris administration will develop a U.S. National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia. The department will continue to complete actions under the strategy to counter antisemitism and anticipates additional actions under its purview will result from the forthcoming strategy to counter Islamophobia.

“The rise of reports of hate incidents on our college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict is deeply traumatic for students and should be alarming to all Americans. Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to upholding the civil rights of students of all backgrounds, including students who are, or who are perceived to be, Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian or of any other shared ancestry. College and university leaders must be unequivocal about condemning hatred and violence, and work harder than ever to ensure all students have the freedom to learn in safe and inclusive campus communities.”

The announcement just before Thanksgiving came on the heels of Secretary Cardona’s and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden’s visit to the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University . The leaders held a roundtable discussion with Jewish students from several Baltimore-area universities as part of the department’s Antisemitism Awareness Campaign, initiated under the Biden-Harris administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. In recent weeks, as part of its Antisemitism Awareness Campaign, the department has conducted site visits in cities across the country to address and learn about antisemitism at schools and college campuses.

OCR also recently released an updated complaint form specifying that Title VI’s protection from discrimination based on race, color or national origin extends to students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, or based on other shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. This update will help individuals understand how to file a Title VI complaint.

Anyone who thinks a school has discriminated against a student based on race, color or national origin can file a complaint of discrimination with OCR. The person who files the complaint does not need to have been the target of the alleged violation, but could be a family member, or faculty, staff or any other concerned community member who is aware of possible discrimination. To file a complaint, visit https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/complaintintro.html.

The department is available to provide technical assistance webinars on the application of Title VI to discrimination based on race, color or national origin as described in the letter released today. To request such a training, please contact OCR at OCR@ed.gov.

“Through this letter, we urge school communities to be vigilant of your students’ rights under Title VI, understanding that we in OCR are and will be,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “Jewish students, Israeli students, Muslim students, Arab students and Palestinian students, and all other students who reside within our school communities, have the right to learn in our nation’s schools free from discrimination.”

Title VI’s protection from race, color or national origin discrimination extends to students who experience discrimination, including harassment, based on their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, or citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity. Schools that receive federal financial assistance have a responsibility to address discrimination when the discrimination involves racial, ethnic or ancestral slurs or stereotypes; or when the discrimination is based on a student’s skin color, physical features or style of dress that reflects both ethnic and religious traditions, to name a few characteristics. Likewise, schools have a responsibility to address discrimination against students based on the region of the world they come from or are perceived to come from.

Thes newly released documents are among several resources released by OCR to support schools in complying with their obligations under Title VI to address discrimination based on race, color or national origin, including shared ancestry and ethnic characteristics. Additional resources in this area include a fact sheet, Protecting Students from Discrimination Based on Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics, released in January 2023, and a Dear Colleague Letter issued in May 2023 as part of the department’s launch of an Antisemitism Awareness Campaign. These resources are available on the Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics page of OCR’s website. Information about recently resolved complaints under Title VI, including complaints alleging discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, is available here.