On December 31, 2015, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter before the beginning of the new year to remind schools of the importance of providing a discrimination free learning environment. The letter specifically focused on discrimination and harassment in schools based on race, religion, and national origin in light of the large number of families fleeing violence in Syria.
The Department of Education emphasized that the United States must welcome these refugees while also being committed to safeguarding the safety and security of the American people during this time of heightened fear and anger. One important aspect the Department of Education highlighted was ensuring that a student’s ability to learn was not affected due to inappropriate school conduct or discrimination.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin for public and private agencies that receive Federal funding. While Title VI does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on one’s religion, discrimination against persons who belong to a religious group based on their actual or perceived characteristics is a violation of Title VI.
The letter speaks to both K-12 and higher education institution’s duty to provide a safe learning environment, and limiting behavior that causes hostile environments. It additionally clarified that protecting free speech means allowing students, staff, and community members to express speech, even if it is at odds with the institution’s beliefs.
Some examples the Department of Education gave for helping facilitate the appropriate environment included encouraging students to express disagreement in a respectful manner, clearly communicating that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated, and creating opportunities for cultural groups to engage with each other and the school community.
The Department of Education acknowledged the difficulty of the work, but reiterated that schools have a responsibility to challenge past efforts, and welcome the refugees by working together to prevent discrimination.