WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
“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,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation.”
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 letter 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 colleges last week, Cardona said he was “appalled and horrified” by incidents of antisemitism on U.S. campuses. A White House official at the meeting noted that attacks on Arabs and Muslims have been on the rise too.
At the meeting, students called on Cardona to help colleges combat the type of casual antisemitism that they fear will escalate into violence.
Students at Towson University described a recent prayer gathering that was disrupted when other students wrote “(expletive) the Jews” on a nearby chalkboard. Online chat boards have been littered with antisemitic insults, they said, some singling out Jews on campus.
Makayla Bernstein, president of Towson Hillel, said the Education Department’s letter is a strong start but needs to go farther. She was hoping for clearer guidance to help colleges identify rhetoric or behavior that should be considered antisemitic.
“Leaders on our campus have been having a hard time knowing where the line is,” Bernstein said. Anything short of violence has been tolerated, she added, with other forms of antisemitism “falling through the cracks.”
“Hopefully our president will be reading this letter and realize that there are many students who are afraid to walk around campus right now,” she said.
The letter is valuable because it points students to a legal route to fight harassment and discrimination, said Steven Doctorman, a Jewish student at Johns Hopkins University. But more needs to be done to discourage harmful speech before it becomes commonplace, he said.
“It requires the school or the administration or even the federal government to really take a stand,” he said.
Nothing new is required of colleges in the letter, and it adds no clarity around thorny free speech questions. Still, it’s a reminder that colleges should be paying attention to the issue, said Jonathan Fansmith, who leads government relations for the American Council on Education, an association of university presidents.
He cautions against the idea of letting the federal government decide what phrases or rhetoric should be deemed acceptable.
“That is something that I think people rightfully would have a lot of concerns about,” he said. “It just never will be simple or straightforward.”
On many campuses, Muslim and Arab students say they also feel unsafe. At Yale University, “death to Palestine” was found written on a campus whiteboard last month. On Friday, an Arab Muslim student at Stanford University was injured in a hit-and-run that’s being investigated as a hate crime.
Abdulwahab Omira, the Stanford student, said the university waited six hours to issue a statement and played down the severity of the incident.
“The hours following the incident were agonizingly silent from the institution that I had trusted to be my safeguard,” he wrote in a statement.
Weeks of turmoil have tested university leaders who strive to balance students’ safety and speech rights. Many have issued broad statements condemning violence while allowing pro-Israel and pro-Palestine rallies that have sometimes roiled campuses.
The president of Brandeis University broke from the pack Monday, declaring in an op-ed that student groups “will lose their affiliations and privileges when they spew hate.” Brandeis is a secular college founded by the American Jewish community in 1948.
In his op-ed, President Ronald D. Liebowitz denounced rhetoric used by pro-Palestine demonstrators, saying colleges “cannot stop hate speech, but they can stop paying for it.” The school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine announced it had been de-recognized by Brandeis and forced to cancel an event.
The Education Department’s letter is one of several actions from the Biden administration to help colleges.
Federal law enforcement officials are working with campus police to assess threats, and the Education Department updated a federal complaint form to clarify that certain forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia are prohibited by federal law.
The Biden administration says it will take other steps as it unrolls its national strategy against antisemitism — an effort inspired by a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s also working on a new strategy to counter Islamophobia.
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