By Catherine E. Lhamon
All students—regardless of race, national origin, religion, disability or sex—deserve access to a high-quality education, from preschool through college. Throughout the last seven-and-a-half years, the Obama administration and the Department of Education have worked to safeguard the rights and protections of our students by enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, implementing regulations that prohibit discrimination, and providing additional support to educators to prevent such discrimination.
Building on these critical efforts, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched a webpage that consolidates resources from across the federal government about religious discrimination. The new page links to OCR’s relevant policy guidance and case resolutions involving religious discrimination claims, as well as resources in various languages and from other Federal agencies.
We also revised our online complaint form to clarify when OCR can investigate complaints from individuals who believe they have experienced racial, ethnic or national origin discrimination involving their religion. Both efforts aim to ensure that students of all religious backgrounds receive the full protection of federal civil rights laws.
OCR’s jurisdiction under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to discrimination based on a person’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, including membership in a religion that may be perceived to exhibit ethnic characteristics (e.g., Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh students). Our updated online form reaffirms that students and parents of all faiths can file complaints with OCR that include aspects of religious discrimination in education, even though Title VI does not expressly prohibit religious discrimination.
Such complaints are not new to OCR. Last year, we received more than 450 complaints of racial or national origin harassment, including some involving religion. We have used enforcement as a key tool to protect students of many religious backgrounds from unlawful discrimination.
For example, we have resolved cases involving Jewish students subjected to anti-Semitic epithets or Muslim students targeted for wearing a hijab and called terrorists. In instances where schools failed to address a hostile environment, we have secured commitments from those schools to improve their harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, and conduct school climate surveys.
In addition to resolving cases, OCR has conducted outreach and worked to share resources with the field in order to support schools in their efforts to prevent religious discrimination.
Since March, OCR has participated in a series of roundtables with other federal agencies on issues of religious discrimination, including bullying of students from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. Our participation in the Justice Department’s Combating Religious Discrimination Today roundtables also has given us the opportunity to hear from communities and advocates around the country on the issue of religious discrimination in our nation’s schools.
In June, OCR issued a fact sheet about combating discrimination against Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian students, and I recently blogged about OCR’s work to prevent discrimination involving religion at schools and universities.
We recognize, as the Department recently stated in the Federal Register, that there are “an increasing number of incidents of anti-Semitic bullying and harassment in public schools…[and] reports documenting that students who are or are perceived as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian or Southeast Asian are frequent targets of bullying and harassment.” In response, the Department revised the regulations for the Equity Assistance Centers (EACs). The EACs, starting in October, will be authorized to provide technical assistance, on request, to public school districts, students and parents, and community organizations to prevent and combat religious discrimination.
Recognizing that data are critical in understanding the problem and measuring progress, later this year every public school district in the country will be required, for the first time, to report to OCR through the Civil Rights Data Collection (www.ocrdata.ed.gov) on the number of incidents of religious-based bullying or harassment in their schools in the 2015-16 school year. We hope that this information will be useful to schools, policymakers, researchers and others to facilitate a broader understanding of the scope of this issue.
We look forward to continuing this important work by using all the tools at our disposal to address unlawful discrimination so that all students can learn in safe, inclusive and welcoming school environments.
Catherine E. Lhamon is assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.