Department of Education Reminds Schools of their Obligations Under Title VI

On November 7, 2023, a month after the October 7th Israel-Hamas conflict, the Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) reminding schools of their obligation “to provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.” Due to the sharp rise in Antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses, Secretary Cardona urges that “university leaders must be unequivocal about condemning hatred and violence” so that all students can learn in a safe educational environment.  Our main takeaways are below:

A Refresher on Title VI

The Department emphasizes that Title VI’s prohibition on discrimination based on race, color, and national origin also “extends to students who experience discrimination, including harassment, based on their actual or perceived: (i) shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics; or (ii) citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity.”

Discrimination Based on Stereotypes, Style of Dress, and Perceived Nationality

The DCL also reminds institutions of their obligation to address discrimination when it involves “racial, ethnic, or ancestral slurs or stereotypes” against Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian students, or students who belong to other religious groups. Additionally, the Department urges schools to address discrimination when it is based on a student’s style of dress that “reflects ethnic and religious traditions” or based on a student’s perceived or actual nationality. According to the Department, Title VI’s protections also apply to discrimination based on a student’s accent or name “commonly associated with a particular shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” Discrimination based on a student speaking a foreign language is also included.

Verbal or Physical Harassment  =  “Hostile Environment” under Title VI

The Department reiterates that harassment (both physical and verbal) creates a hostile environment under Title VI and reminds schools to take “immediate and effective action” to respond. According to the DCL, the type of harassment that creates a hostile environment is conduct that is “unwelcome… based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics that, based on the totality of the circumstances, is subjectively and objectively offensive and is so severe or pervasive that it limits or denies a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s education program or activity.” The Department also reminds schools that enforcement of Title VI continues to be a high priority.

Updated Complaint Form

According to the press release, OCR has also updated its Title VI complaint form. The form specifies that Title VI’s protections extend to students who experience discrimination based on race, color, or national origin because they “are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, or based on other shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” The complaint form can be found here as a PDF.

In addition to the DCL, the Department also re-released several resources related to Title VI. These include a fact sheet entitled “Protecting Students from Discrimination Based on Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics,” and a DCL outlining the Department’s efforts to address Anti Semitism on campus. To view additional resources, check out OCR’s Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics page.