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Dept. of Ed. civil rights chief ‘astounded’ by antisemitic incidents at U.S. schools, universities

New FBI data indicates that 10% of all hate crimes in 2022 — before the Oct. 7 attacks — took place at schools or on college campuses

Catherine Lhamon, the top civil rights official at the U.S. Department of Education, said on Monday she is “astounded” by the antisemitic incidents she has seen since Oct. 7.

“I’m a longtime, lifelong civil rights attorney, and I and my staff know hate intimately because of what we do, and I am astounded by the kinds of allegations that we are seeing now in this country,” Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, told Jewish Insider in an interview. “I’m devastated that it’s true, and devastated for the students who are experiencing those kinds of incidents.” 

Lhamon oversees the department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which investigates schools and universities that are alleged to have violated students’ civil rights. A team of 600 civil rights lawyers investigates whether the alleged harassment or discriminatory conduct “limits or denies a student’s access to education, and if so, whether the school’s response was prompt and effective.” 

In other words, her team is not just examining whether antisemitism or racism occurred — they are determining whether it impeded the student’s education, based in large part on the school’s handling of the incident.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel and touched off a wave of antisemitism worldwide, Lhamon’s team has opened a record number of investigations into discrimination at U.S. schools based on “shared ancestry.” This language comes from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on people’s “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” For two decades, the Education Department has interpreted this phrase to extend to religious minorities including Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

The department’s civil rights office received 183 complaints of “shared ancestry” discrimination in the four months since the beginning of October. In the entire previous fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023, the office received just 62 complaints. More shared ancestry investigations — 58 in total — have been opened in the past four months than in the previous seven years combined, according to publicly available data. Two-thirds of the complaints received since October have been related to allegations of antisemitism, a department spokesperson said.

Antisemitism investigations are already underway at several universities including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University. (The figures also include K-12 schools.) New FBI data released on Monday found that 10% of all hate crimes in 2022, prior to the recent wave of antisemitism, occurred at schools or college campuses.

Lhamon declined to weigh in on whether particular statements or actions, such as anti-Israel protesters chanting the phrases “Globalize the Intifada” or “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” that are viewed as antisemitic by many in the Jewish community, would rise to the level of a civil rights violation.

“The question for us is not so much whether one student is correct or not correct about how the student received the comment,” said Lhamon, when asked about those two phrases. “It’s, ‘Was the conduct so severe or pervasive that it limited or denied the students access to education? And was it based on shared ancestry? And then if so, did the school respond in a way that mitigated the harm to the student and prevented its recurrence?’”

The Education Department reached an agreement this week with a school district in Delaware where a student had been harassed because she was Jewish. Classmates drew swastikas on her desk and raised their arms in a “Heil Hitler” salute near her. The settlement includes several steps the district must take, such as developing policies responding to harassment, auditing past instances of discrimination, training staff and compensating the student’s parents for counseling services related to the antisemitism they experienced.

“It’s targeted, it’s ugly, it’s old tropes, and that predated October 7,” said Lhamon. “We see allegations of those types since October 7. Also, we have seen allegations that students are surrounded, they’re prevented from going to class, they’re prevented from leaving a building. They can be barricaded, people could be banging on the walls. The volume of threat can be quite high, and the repetition of those allegations are shocking to me.”

OCR aims to complete investigations within six months, but Lhamon acknowledged that’s just a goal — and the department usually fails to meet. 

“We actually resolved that in seven months, which I’m very delighted about,” she said of the Delaware case, which was opened in June 2023. “But that’s unusual for us, and it’s unusual because of the intensity of the investigation that I was describing.” An allegation that a hostile environment existed for a student could involve interviews with the student, witnesses and administrators, as well as an intensive document review. The cases either end with an agreement with the schools to address the issue, or a statement explaining why OCR does not believe the law was violated.

The work is not made easier by the department’s inability to hire more attorneys. Congress has not yet passed a budget for the year. President Joe Biden has requested a 27% increase in OCR’s budget, Lhamon said — an increase that would allow her to hire 100 people to her investigative team. 

“Until then, we’re throwing everything we have at these cases, with the resources that we have,” said Lhamon. “It is very challenging for us. Our staff are now carrying in excess of 50 cases a person, and that is an untenable caseload.”

Students or their parents who want to file a federal discrimination complaint with OCR must navigate an opaque process, laced with bureaucratic jargon, to do so. 

“The choice about whether to come forward is always a deeply personal one, and I respect that,” said Lhamon. “I’m also very grateful that so many people have chosen to put their faith in OCR to resolve the concerns that they have.”

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