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OCR Releases “Dear Colleague Letter” on School Responsibilities to Address Title VI Discrimination and Harassment

Education K-12 Education

On November 7, 2023, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) that reminds schools of their Title VI obligations to provide all students with a learning environment free from discrimination. The DCL comes in the wake of a nationwide rise in reports of hate crimes and harassment, including a rise of antisemitic and anti-Islamic incidents and threats to Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students.

The DCL underscores the legal obligation that schools have to address harassment and discrimination against students and others, including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian. Under Title VI, schools that receive federal funding are obligated to address discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. Discrimination is also prohibited, and schools must take action, when the discrimination is based on a student’s skin color, physical features, or style of dress that reflects both ethnic and religious traditions, or when the discrimination is based on where a student comes from or is perceived to have come from, including discrimination based on a student’s foreign accent, name, or a student speaking a foreign language.  

In the DCL, OCR emphasized that schools must also take immediate action when responding to harassment that creates a hostile environment. OCR clarified that harassment can be verbal or physical and does not need to be directed at an individual. OCR interprets harassment that creates a hostile environment under Title VI as “unwelcome conduct based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics that … 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 … education program or activity.”

OCR posted additional resources at the end of the DCL and on its Shared Ancestry or Ethnic Characteristics website that schools may find helpful in maintaining an educational environment that is free from discrimination. The DCL concluded by calling upon schools to be vigilant to the rights of students under Title VI, reminding school communities of their responsibility in maintaining educational environments that are free from discrimination. 

Franczek P.C. stands ready to assist your school in addressing discrimination or harassment should the need arise. If you have any questions regarding the DCL or need assistance in addressing reports of discrimination or harassment, including training on schools’ obligations under Title VI, please contact a Franczek attorney.

*Also authored by Brenton Villasenor, a second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Brenton is a Loyola Education Practicum Student at Franczek P.C. The Practicum, part of Loyola’s education law curriculum, was created to provide law students with practical experience at education law firms and organizations. Students receive academic credit for their Practicum experience.