The University of Tampa and a Florida school district, Hillsborough County Schools, are the latest schools to face an investigation by the Department of Education related to alleged incidents of discrimination.
The investigations were made public Tuesday by the department, which added them to an online list of ongoing investigations – which is growing in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. It also announced a second investigation into New York’s Columbia University.
Last week, the Department of Education launched investigations into six colleges – including Columbia, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania – and one K-12 school over alleged incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
The investigations were launched by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, universities and K-12 schools have a responsibility to provide all students with an environment free from discrimination. Any person or organization can file a Title VI complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.
The agency is now conducting an unprecedented number of hate investigations, according to a department official.
The situation is becoming untenable for the Office for Civil Rights, which the official told CNN doesn’t have the investigative staff to match the influx of cases.
“Seeing the proliferation of hate on school campuses, we find it astonishing and scary,” the official said.
The Office for Civil Rights has now opened a total of 27 Title VI investigations this year. Fifteen similar investigations were opened last year and just two were opened in 2021. The office also investigates other kinds of rights violations, including those regarding sexual harassment.
“They (the Department of Education) are very clearly trying to demonstrate that they are moving quickly to respond to concerns they’ve heard from the public, from Congress and from the administration,” said Jonathan Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education. The organization represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities.
“They have made it clear that they are going to be taking a very, very vigilant role on the issue of antisemitism on college campuses,” he added.
The Office for Civil Rights aims to resolve investigations within six months. Schools could ultimately lose federal funding if they don’t comply with the office’s recommendations, but investigations typically end with the school agreeing to address the incident or making policy changes if there is a systemic problem.
The University of Tampa said that the investigation stems from an incident that occurred in September – before the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel – and was addressed by the university.
“The university is fully cooperating with the request for information, but cannot comment further due to student privacy laws,” it said.
Columbia University said it would cooperate with any investigation. Hillsborough County Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Rising tensions across the country
College campuses have seen a rise in tension over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. A Cornell University student was federally charged in connection with a series of online posts threatening to kill and harm Jewish students, and the University of Pennsylvania recently alerted the FBI to a series of threatening, antisemitic emails sent to the Ivy League school’s staff.
Complaints filed earlier this month by the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights legal organization, led the Office for Civil Rights to open investigations into the University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center, told CNN he thinks the Office for Civil Rights could be doing more. He also headed the office under the Trump administration.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket when you compare the number of investigations to the number of incidents we’re seeing across the country,” Marcus said.
“This reflects only a tiny percentage of problems out there,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Department of Education issued guidance to colleges and K-12 schools, reminding them that they have a legal obligation to address incidents of discrimination – including against those who are Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian.
The department also recently updated its discrimination complaint form, specifying that Title VI’s protection from discrimination based on race, color or national origin extends to students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, or based on other shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.
This story has been updated with additional information.
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