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Biden admin omits Jewish students in discrimination reminder to schools

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In a reminder to school leaders, the Biden administration enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Education said that it has seen more complaints of discrimination against “Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian, Hindu, and Palestinian students.” The letter did not mention discrimination against Jewish students.

The “dear colleague” letter sent from the agency’s Office for Civil Rights Thursday does not mention discrimination against Jewish students, despite the National Defamation League reporting a 360% increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. last year after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

“I am deeply disturbed by increasing reports of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian harassment in schools,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a press release Thursday.

“Hate has no place in our nation’s classrooms or on our college campuses, and the Department is committed to providing school communities with the information and resources they need to prevent and combat Islamophobia and related forms of discrimination,” Cardona continued.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened at least 30 investigations into anti-Semitism complaints on college campuses since Jan. 1, but those complaints were not mentioned in Thursday’s guidance.

The letter from Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, reiterated to public school leaders their obligation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide education environments free from discrimination.

“OCR continues to stand ready to fulfill the promise of Title VI to ensure every student, including Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian, Hindu, and Palestinian students, has equal access to educational opportunities that are free from discrimination,” said Lhamon in the media release Thursday.

The letter explicitly mentions those same ethnicities, while references to antisemitism were left in the footnotes regarding a previous publication on antisemitism from January 2021.

The OCR did remind school leaders on Nov. 7 about their “legal obligation under Title VI to address prohibited discrimination against students and others on [their campuses] — including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian — in the ways described in this letter.”

That language was nowhere to be found in Thursday’s letter.

“Under Title VI, schools that receive federal financial assistance from the Department have a responsibility to address discrimination against students, including Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian, Hindu, and Palestinian students, when the discrimination: involves racial, ethnic, or ancestral slurs or stereotypes; is based on a student’s skin color, physical features, or style of dress that reflects both ethnic and religious traditions; or is based on the country or region where a student is from or is perceived to have come from,” Lhamon’s most recent reminder to school leaders reads.

Along with definitions of discrimination, the OCR secretary warned of potential federal consequences.

“If OCR finds a hostile environment based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, and that the school knew or should have known of the hostile environment, OCR will evaluate whether the school met its obligation under Title VI to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent harassment from recurring,” Lhamon wrote.

According to the release, the reminder is part of the Biden administration’s “national strategy to counter Islamophobia and related forms of bias and discrimination” and in advance of International Day to Combat Islamophobia, which is Friday.

Previous “dear colleague” letters since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist group, have included information for schools about discrimination against Jewish students as well as Muslim and Palestinian American students.

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