In the wake of rising antisemitism in schools, the U.S. Department of Education reminded districts in a Dear Colleague letter issued Thursday that they must address harassment and discrimination based on race, color or national origin. The department's Office for Civil Rights may investigate complaints of antisemitic harassment or discrimination under Title VI if districts fail to do so, according to the letter.
"Schools must take immediate and appropriate action to respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary at the Office for Civil Rights, in the letter. "Title VI protects all students, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin."
Lhamon defined a hostile environment in the letter as "harassing conduct that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school."
In 2022, there were 494 incidents of antisemitism recorded on school grounds, marking an almost 50% increase over the prior year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault..
Of those incidents, slightly more than half — 257— were harassment, 232 were mostly vandalism, and five were assaults. Harassment often involved images of swastikas, such as a student drawing the Nazi symbol on a piece of paper and handing it to a Jewish classmate.
Swastikas were also included in 88% of the 232 vandalism cases recorded, including messages such as “Kill all Jews,” “6M Oven,” “Hitler was right” and “Jews not welcome.”
The overall rise in antisemitic incidents nationwide last year was driven partly by this significant increase in incidents at non-Jewish K-12 schools, according to the ADL report.
Overall, there were 3,697 antisemitic incidents recorded throughout the United States in 2022, ADL said. That's a 36% increase from 2021 and the highest number recorded by the organization since it began tracking incidents over four decades ago.
In its letter to schools, OCR said it would investigate complaints related to students being subjected to slurs, stereotyped or harassed for ethnic attire, language or skin color.
The department also said it plans to conduct site visits to K-12 schools, including those that have experienced increases in antisemitic incidents but have not yet addressed them.
The department's letter came on the same day the White House released a national strategy meant to counter antisemitism. The White House called the rise in antisemitic incidents in education settings "unacceptable."
Part of the administration's strategy includes increasing education in schools about antisemitism and how to counter it. It also includes plans to bring together Education Department and state education officials to discuss how to do so.
"Our schools and campuses must feel and be safe for all people," the White House said in its strategy document, adding that OCR "will be watching to be sure these students are safe."
Last year, OCR settled a case with Arizona's Kyrene School District #28, which was found to have violated a student's civil rights by failing to address ongoing antisemitic harassment by her peers in school and on social media.
Under the settlement, the district was required to reimburse the student for tutoring expenses and train school staff on race and ethnic discrimination, among other remedies.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration also clarified that Title VI — the civil rights law that prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination — includes protections against discrimination based on students' actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.
As of May 8, OCR's website shows it is investigating 2,115 Title VI cases overall.