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Working to Prevent Discrimination Involving Religion at Schools and Universities

No student – whether Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or of any other religious background – should experience barriers to learning and success in school because of who the student is or what the student believes.

That’s why last month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights participated in a community forum in Palo Alto, California, on religious discrimination in schools and universities. This roundtable built on an event in Newark, New Jersey, in March, where the Department of Education joined the Justice Department in announcing the launch of Combating Religious Discrimination Today, a new interagency community engagement initiative designed to promote religious freedom, challenge religious discrimination and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes.

In Palo Alto, we heard about the prevalence of bullying and harassment that students from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds experience at school. Community leaders expressed support for a wide range of trainings – social-emotional learning, cultural competency, implicit bias, restorative justice, basics of world religions – to improve school and campus climates.

We view last month’s roundtable as an important continuation of a dialogue. The discussion echoed themes from the joint letter by Secretary John King and former Secretary Arne Duncan that promoted efforts to create safe and supportive school environments in which all students are equally able to participate in a robust exchange of ideas.

We at OCR are eager to continue our work in partnership with our federal colleagues to address unlawful bias and discrimination in our nation’s schools, and to continue our strong enforcement of federal civil rights laws to ensure that all students can learn in safe school environments.

Last year, OCR received more than 10,000 complaints, 21 percent of which involved race or national origin discrimination and more than 450 of which involved racial or national origin harassment, including some relating to national origin discrimination involving religion. We evaluated every complaint we received for possible civil rights violations.

One example involved a Jewish student in California. The complaint alleged that the student was bullied repeatedly over several years based on his shared ancestry and/or ethnic background as a Jewish person, as well as being subjected to disability-based harassment. In addition to verbal taunts, the complaint alleged that the student was physically assaulted by his peers. The school was notified of several incidents of harassment, and although the school responded, the harassing conduct continued.

In the resolution agreement, the district agreed to conduct a school climate assessment and create a plan to address the issues so that incidents of race- and disability-based harassment, specifically including anti-Semitic harassment, would be investigated and redressed; provide expert training to school personnel on how to investigate and respond to allegations of discriminatory harassment; and provide age-appropriate training to students to raise awareness of what constitutes harassment based on race or disability, including anti-Semitic harassment, among other remedies.

Enforcement is just one of OCR’s tools to protect students. We’ve also issued policy guidance that explains how Title VI addresses discrimination of religious individuals based on actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. And to better monitor the prevalence of religion-based bullying or harassment in schools, as part of the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, all school districts will report on incidents of bullying or harassment on the basis of actual or perceived religion. Catherine E. Lhamon is Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.