May 24, 2024 | Policy Brief

Antisemitism in Schools Shows Need for Stronger Enforcement of Title VI and Accountability Policies

May 24, 2024 | Policy Brief

Antisemitism in Schools Shows Need for Stronger Enforcement of Title VI and Accountability Policies

A Jewish teacher hid in a locked classroom on May 16 when 400 anti-Israel student protesters rampaged through a Bronx high school campus, just one week after the House convened a hearing on K-12 antisemitism. The hearing highlighted the inadequate response to antisemitism of administrators in several large school districts and the need for stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related accountability policies.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce summoned school district leaders from Maryland, New York, and California to testify on May 8 before the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Several committee members focused on whether public school districts have enforced disciplinary policies and held students, teachers, and administrators accountable for misconduct.

Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) highlighted a November 20 incident that shares some similarities with the one in the Bronx last week in which students at Hillcrest High School in Queens rioted, targeting a Jewish teacher and forcing her to hide for hours. In his testimony, the chancellor of New York City’s public schools, David Banks, told members the school’s principal had been removed. But follow-up questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) confirmed the principal had not been terminated but reassigned to an administrative position in New York’s Department of Education.

Rep. Owens pressed two other witnesses, representing the public school systems in Berkeley, California, and Montgomery Country, Maryland, on whether they have disciplined, transferred, or fired teachers suspected of promoting antisemitism. The witnesses struggled to provide clear-cut answers.

Schools need clear standards that do not tolerate unlawful antisemitic discrimination or harassment attempting to masquerade as freedom of speech. When there is an absence of those standards or a failure to enforce them, antisemitic content can more easily infiltrate classrooms. Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-CA) questioned the Berkeley schools’ representative about a curriculum in her district that teaches “for some Palestinians, ‘From the river to the sea’ is a call for freedom and peace.” The history of that phrase shows it is a call for the eradication of the State of Israel. The Berkeley representative defended the material on the grounds that all perspectives are welcome: “It’s important to expose our students to a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and if it was presented as a perspective, I do think it was appropriate,” she said.

Protecting students from antisemitic harassment and discrimination and holding perpetrators accountable will require better enforcement of Title VI, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs and activities operated by recipients of federal funds.” Notably, for many years, the Department of Education “has interpreted Title VI to reach religious discrimination when it overlaps with race or national origin discrimination,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

During the hearing, Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) called for increased funding for the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the Department of Education (DOE). That office “investigates discrimination complaints, conducts compliance reviews, monitors corrective action plans, and provides technical assistance on civil rights issues,” according to DOE. The number of complaints that OCR has received since fiscal year 2009 has “almost tripled, while the number of investigative staff have decreased slightly over the same period,” the department’s 2024 budget request observes. If the OCR lacks sufficient funding and staff, it will struggle to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to complaints involving antisemitism.

Some lawmakers are reluctant to provide OCR additional funding, but depriving it of the resources it needs to fight antisemitism would be a mistake. As a compromise, Congress could provide additional funding to OCR specifically for the purpose of combating antisemitism in schools while requiring more robust congressional reporting. Strengthened reporting requirements could focus on delineating antisemitism cases to improve visibility on investigation status and outcomes. The Anti-Defamation League called for additional funding for OCR in April. A portion of that increased funding could come from elsewhere within the department’s budget.

Antonette Bowman is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. For more analysis from Antonette, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.