September 19, 2001
I write to ask your help in responding to a problem that has arisen following the terrible events of the past several days, and that threatens some of our nation's students. There have been increasing news reports of incidents of harassment and violence directed at persons perceived to be Arab Americans or of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, including children. Arab-American parents have publicly expressed fear about the safety of their children at school. These occurrences are extremely disturbing to me and are of major concern to the Department of Education.
All of us are justly outraged at the destruction and loss of life in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. However, violence and harassment against innocent people based solely on their race or national origin only compounds hatred and must not be condoned or tolerated. Each incident has a ripple effect in our schools and our communities, creating fear and tensions that ultimately affect us all. I am concerned that young people are particularly susceptible to copying inappropriate conduct at a time when fear and anger are heightened.
We are all committed to making sure children across America can attend school in a safe and secure environment free from physical threats and discrimination. School officials, working closely with students, parents, and community groups, play a critical role in ensuring that race-based harassment and violence have no place in our schools.
Harassment in schools can take many forms, from abusive name calling to violent crimes directed at a student because of his or her race or ancestry, the country of origin of the student's family, or the student's cultural traditions. If ignored, harassment can jeopardize students' ability to learn, undermine their physical and emotional well-being, provoke retaliatory violence, and exacerbate community conflicts. The message we must send out to parents and students is that such conduct is unconditionally wrong and will not be tolerated in our schools.
I take this opportunity to highlight our responsibilities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance. Schools, colleges, and universities are responsible under Title VI for providing students with an education environment free from discrimination.
Racial or ethnic harassment is unlawful. It can deny or limit a student's ability to receive or participate in the benefits, services, or opportunities in a school's program - simply speaking it denies students the right to an education free of discrimination. The existence of a racially hostile environment that is encouraged, accepted, or tolerated by a school, college, or university constitutes different treatment of students on the basis of race.
In response to last week's events specifically, I urge you to make sure that assemblies, classroom discussions, and other school activities held to honor victims of the tragedies do not inadvertently foster the targeting of Arab-American students for harassment or blame. Encourage students to discuss diversity constructively and to express disagreement over ideas or beliefs in a respectful manner. Have a system in place to intervene if particular students exhibit feelings or conduct that could endanger others. Encourage all students to report threats of racial or ethnic harassment.
Through our words and the example of our own conduct, we must remind our children that harassment of and violence toward any individual because of his or her race or national origin is never acceptable. In addition, we must emphasize during this difficult time in our nation's history that our feelings of anger and sadness must not be directed at innocent Arab Americans, or other individuals having no connection to last week's events. Working together, we can make sure that our children get a good education in a safe environment that does not tolerate violence and hatred.
Thank you for your help on this most critical issue.