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Frequently Asked Questions about Racial Harassment

Why is OCR concerned with racial harassment?

Harassment of students due to race, color, and national origin is a disturbing phenomenon in elementary and secondary education as well as at colleges and universities as shown by the growing number of complaints the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) receives on this issue. This trend is a major concern because of the profound educational, emotional and physical consequences for the targeted students.

Examples of racial harassment that OCR has dealt with include racially motivated physical attacks, racial epithets scrawled on school walls, and organized hate activity directed at students.

What is a racially hostile environment?

A racially hostile environment may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct related to an individual's race, color, or national origin that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the recipient's programs or activities.

Federal civil rights laws are intended to protect students from discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech. OCR is sensitive to First Amendment concerns that may arise in the course of addressing racial harassment complaints and takes special care to avoid actions that would impair the First Amendment rights of an institution's students and employees.

What are the responsibilities of schools and colleges?

Prohibited discrimination occurs when a recipient condones, tolerates or allows a racially hostile environment that it knows about or when recipient's employees treat students differently because of their race.

How does OCR help eliminate racial harassment against students?

OCR enforces Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on a student's race, color and national origin in schools and colleges receiving federal funds. OCR investigates and resolves complaints alleging that educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds have failed to protect students from harassment based on race, color or national origin. Complaints are often resolved by agreements requiring schools to adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and to take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.

In addition to resolving complaints by students and their parents, OCR takes steps to inform schools of their obligation to provide a nondiscriminatory environment. On March 10,1994, OCR published policy guidance (59 Federal Register 11448) which explained the legal principles requiring educational institutions that receive federal funds to take steps reasonably calculated to stop harassment when it occurs and prevent recurrence.

OCR's field offices also engage in a variety of technical assistance activities in collaboration with state and local education and law enforcement agencies to encourage educational institutions to improve their anti-harassment policies and procedures and to assist students and their parents to work with schools to enhance the schools' anti-harassment capability.

Last Modified: 10/16/2015