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May 11, 2018 4:43 pm

US Jewish Civil Rights Group Calls for Federal Law to Counter Religious Bullying, Harassment in Schools

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The director of legal initiatives at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law testifies before the US Commission on Civil Rights, May 11, 2018. Photo: C-SPAN.

A leading Jewish human rights group called on the federal government on Friday to take action against religiously-motivated bullying in American schools.

Aviva Vogelstein, director of legal initiatives at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told the US Commission on Civil Rights that Congress and the Department of Education have thus far failed to adequately address “the longstanding problem” of hate directed at Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, and other students.

Citing data from the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection survey, Vogelstein noted in her written testimony that “an alarming 10,848 incidents, 8% of the total incidents … were harassment or bullying based on religion.”

She pointed out that existing federal laws — including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers “race, color, or national origin” — do not protect students from religious discrimination, at a time when such attacks are on the rise.

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The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights group, reported “that antisemitic incidents in K-12 schools and on college campuses in 2017 nearly doubled over 2016,” Vogelstein observed. “College campuses saw a total of 204 antisemitic incidents in 2017 as reported to the ADL, compared to 108 in 2016 — an 89% increase.”

Likewise, a report issued by the South Asian Americans Leading Together advocacy group “found a total of 302 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric against those who identify or are perceived as South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab between [2016 and 2017], a 45% increase from their data the previous year.” The majority of incidents were anti-Muslim, with over one in four involving students and youth.

Vogelstein illustrated her point by recounting several recent occasions when students were targeted based on their religious identity.

These include a March 2017 incident, during which a student in Florida drew “a swastika and a fake concentration camp number on a Jewish student’s arm,” she wrote. “The Jewish student also suffered from ongoing antisemitic harassment and bullying, including having pennies thrown at him, Holocaust ‘jokes’ made at his expense, and being handed printouts of Holocaust memes.”

In May 2017, “a Muslim student was assaulted at a New York City public school,” Vogelstein added. “The assailant spit on her, called her a ‘Muslim b*tch’ and attempted to pull off her hijab.”

Later that year, in November, a Jewish boy at a New York school “was verbally harassed, pinned to the ground and had hot wax poured on his skin.”

That same month, in Washington State, “a 14-year-old Sikh boy wearing a turban was punched and knocked down by his classmate less than a block outside of his high school.”

To address such incidents, Vogelstein urged Congress to either pass a new bill or amend existing legislation to cover cases of religiously-motivated hate.

She also called for the matter to be addressed by the Department of Education, which she indicated had “made incremental improvements to protect students based on religion.”

In 2014, then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus wrote a Dear Colleague Letter extending Title VI protection to members of groups that “exhibit both ethnic and religious characteristics, such as Arab Muslims, Jewish Americans and Sikhs.”

The informal guidance issued by Marcus — founder of the Brandeis Center and current nominee to the post of assistant secretary at the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) — was backed up by both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education in 2010. However, not much action has come of it yet, Vogelstein argued.

“For example, OCR has not found a single violation in a campus anti-Semitism case despite the high volume of incidents we know exist,” she noted, attributing this in part to a lack of clarity. “By properly defining what discrimination based on ethnicity or ancestry entails, OCR could more easily identify, address, and prevent such incidents from recurring.”

The guidance should also stress that anti-discrimination policies “should not be construed in ways that will limit freedom of speech.”

Vogelstein also called on the OCR to categorize the information it presents in its Civil Rights Data Collection survey by individual religion, and gather more information on each incident — which could be useful for differentiating between violent assault and verbal harassment, for instance.

“With over ten thousand incidents of religious hate in our schools, the federal government must act,” she stressed. “Our government cannot continue turning a blind-eye to incidents such as choking a Muslim girl with her hijab, punching a Sikh boy wearing a turban, and burning a Jewish boy with hot wax.”

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