The Biden Administration has made concentrated efforts to address the rise in reports of antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other hate-based or bias-based incidents in schools and on college campuses since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict. On November 7, 2023, the U.S. Department of Education’s (“Department”) Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) issued a 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 with a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.

The Dear Colleague Letter states that OCR will support schools in ensuring students have a learning environment free from discrimination. The guidance reminds schools that receive federal financial assistance of their responsibility to address discrimination against Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist students, or students of another religious group. OCR interprets Title VI to mean that the following constitutes hostile environment harassment: unwelcome conduct based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics that, based on the totality of circumstances, is subjectively and 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. Schools must take immediate and effective action to respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment.

OCR reiterates its commitment to addressing discrimination in schools and includes a list of resources available to inform school communities of their obligation to maintain educational environments free from discrimination. OCR also updated its complaint form, specifying that Title VI extends to students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.

On November 14, 2023, the Department also announced new resources aimed at ensuring schools and college campuses have the tools they need to protect students from discrimination and harassment because of their race, color, or national origin, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Arab, or Palestinian.

The Department shared resources that can be used to strengthen school safety, such as funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The Department also noted that Department-funded technical assistance centers are providing guidance and technical assistance, including the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environment’s collections of specialized resources designed to help keep students safe from antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of discrimination.

The Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education also launched a webinar series in December 2023 for school personnel and community-based organizations to develop, strengthen, and share evidence-informed strategies that helps schools prevent and respond to hate-based threats, bullying, and harassment. Senior Department leaders also hosted listening sessions with school leaders to gain insights about how some schools are keeping students safe in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict and have planned listening sessions with students, educators, and staff as well.

The Department also launched its Antisemitism Awareness Campaign, aimed at raising awareness about the alarming rise of antisemitism and providing tools for educators, students, parents, and communities to address it.

What this means to you

With the Department having an increased focus on discrimination and harassment based on national origin, schools should ensure that their policies are up to date and their practices align with their policies to ensure that schools are providing students with educational environments free from discrimination and harassment, including based on national origin.