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Schools face U.S. investigation for alleged antisemitism, Islamophobia

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University President Claudine Gay responded to criticism by students and alumni including Bill Ackman that the school isn’t doing enough to protect Jewish students, saying it would expand its diversity program to combat antisemitism. (Dreamstime/TNS)  (Dreamstime/TNS)
By Frances Vinall Washington Post

The Education Department opened civil rights investigations this week focused on a Kansas school district, three Ivy League universities and three other prominent colleges, all in response to reports of discrimination after last month’s eruption of war between Israel and Hamas.

“Hate has no place in our schools, period,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement Thursday announcing the investigations. “Schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn.”

The institutions under scrutiny, according to the department, are Cornell and Columbia universities; the University of Pennsylvania; Wellesley and Lafayette colleges; the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; and the Maize Unified School District near Wichita.

Five of the investigations relate to antisemitism and two to Islamophobia, a department spokeswoman said.

Launched Wednesday and Thursday, the probes will explore alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That 1964 law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, including harassment based on a person’s shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in programs receiving federal funds.

Federal officials declined Friday to release any further details what incidents at those institutions had prompted their investigation.

Campuses across America have been scenes of protests and vigils since the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel prompted war in Gaza and Israel and inflamed tensions in the Middle East. Reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses have also proliferated.

Long before the war broke out, higher education has been a perennial venue for intense debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked for comment on the federal announcement, the Kansas school district said in a statement: “Maize USD 266 takes allegations of discrimination seriously and is committed to cooperating fully with any investigation. The school district is dedicated to providing a place for teaching and learning that prioritizes and champions respect and inclusivity and where all students and employees feel safe and valued.”

In Massachusetts, Wellesley said it has been “committed to addressing issues of antisemitism on our campus and will continue to work to create an environment that supports free expression and rejects all forms of hate and discrimination.”

Cornell declined to comment. Columbia said it had been contacted by the Office for Civil Rights and pledged to “cooperate with any investigation.”

Lafayette said that it did not know why it was included in the announcement but that it would cooperate fully. “The College maintains a firm stance against antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate speech of any kind,” Lafayette said, echoing positions at other schools.

U-Penn and Cooper Union had no immediate response as of Friday afternoon.

Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant education secretary for civil rights, said in the department’s statement that her office “reaches conclusions at the end of investigations and that a school’s appearance on this list does not reflect a conclusion that the law has been violated.”

Lhamon said the department has seen “the fear students and school communities experience as hate proliferates in schools.”

On Oct. 31, a Cornell University student was arrested after he allegedly made antisemitic threats online, including death threats against Jews. The previous day, Columbia students held a news conference about antisemitism and Islamophobia they had witnessed since Oct. 7. At Cooper Union in late October, Jewish students sheltered in a library as pro-Palestinian demonstrators banged on the glass walls of the building.

The department’s announcement was first reported Thursday evening by CNN.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which has complained to the government about antisemitic incidents on campuses, applauded the department’s action. “The swift response to our complaints reaffirms how severe the anti-Semitism crisis is on college campuses and sends an important signal to university leaders,” Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and chairman of the center, said in a statement.

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Laura Meckler contributed to this report.