OCR Announces Resolution in Ancestry Discrimination Complaint

This month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced the resolution of a complaint of discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry against the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College (“University”). The complaint alleges that the University violated Title VI by failing to address various instances of antisemitic harassment.

Relevant Allegations

On May 17, 2021 students reported to the school’s Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Office (AAEO) several issues from April and May of 2021, including:

  • A Teaching Assistant who made “a collection” of antisemitic tweets that were posted stating, “why do so many zionists work for the writing center” and “it’s [sic] good and funny… for me, a TA, not to give zionists credit for participation”…“-5 points for going on birthright,” and “it’d be a shame if something happened to the israeli flag.” The student filed two additional reporting forms alleging additional antisemitic remarks making Jewish student community feel “threatened”. The student provided numerous attachments that included the social media posts and a Facebook post with a username and picture that resembled the Teaching Assistant’s Twitter handle.
  • Two Jewish students reported that an Instagram account called @ShareYourStoryUVM and run by university students made antisemitic comments and content and that the university students had been “subjected to antisemitic harassment.” Although these reports were received by the AAEO, the University did not investigate these reports and transferred the reports to the Bias Response Team claiming they did not have “jurisdiction” over the account. The Bias Response reached out to the account owner but received no response.

OCR’s investigation revealed that an internal memo of the social media posts was forwarded to the Department chair for the TAs but there was “insufficient evidence for the AAEO to conduct a formal investigation for discrimination or harassment” because that office had not “received any complaints from students that the Teaching Assistant discriminated against or harassed them in her role.”

The complaint to OCR alleged that the University had failed to address an antisemitic incident that occurred at the Hillel building located on University grounds when people threw rocks and foam at the building, asking if the residents were Jewish. There was an additional allegation that people were tampering with the residents’ bikes. The OCR investigation concluded that an officer initiated steps to put a campus alert regarding a “Bias Related Incident (antisemitism), but that officer was told that ‘[he] wasn’t sure this fits’ the criteria for an advisory.”

Conclusions

After its investigation, OCR expressed concerns about the University’s failure to investigate the “allegations of antisemitic harassment” and how the University came to that decision. Specifically, OCR noted the following:

  • Failure to interview the Teaching Assistant about the social media posts even though she could have easily been identified.
  • Failure to inform the impacted students that steps were being taken to “ameliorate any hostile environment.”
  • Failure to follow policy when the Bias Response Team, not the AAEO concluded that the incident was not discriminatory.
  • Inconsistently applied the Discrimination policy to address the @ShareYourStoryUVM and the book club. In determining the University had no jurisdiction over these entities, the University did “not consider that members of the organizations were allegedly University students” nor was the school’s IT department consulted to identify such students.
  • Failure to respond to these allegations and their actions after the OCR investigation began “perpetuated a hostile environment.”
  • Prematurely provided statements from the President to UVM Community denying “false allegations of an insufficient response” prior to the University interviewing students which potentially discouraged students from reporting concerns to the University or OCR.

Take-Aways

In light of this Resolution Agreement, ICS encourages Institutions to conduct Social Media and Anti-Discrimination policies and procedures reviews. Policies should clearly define which department is responsible for handling certain claims so that both administrators and students understand who to contact for any communication. Further, Institutions should ensure that complaints are investigated, and if not, provide explanations of why the matter won’t be investigated within a certain department.

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