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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
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Jewish advocacy group files complaint with Department of Education Office of Civil Rights against American University

Students claim the University has fostered a “hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students”

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish On Campus filed a complaint Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against American University, asking OCR to formally investigate alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This follows Jewish On Campus’s complaint against — and subsequent OCR investigation into — Wellesley College in November 2023, making this the second OCR complaint that the organization has filed since Oct. 7. 

The complaint states that the University has “permitted a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students to develop and flourish on its campus” and contains witness statements from 12 AU students, identified by number rather than name, who say that they have been “threatened, marginalized, shunned, and made to feel unwelcome in their dormitories, classrooms, and social spaces throughout the campus.” 

Lawsuits similar to the complaint against AU have been filed against other schools, including one that accused Harvard University of becoming a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned earlier this month following criticism of Harvard's response to the Israel-Hamas war and allegations of plagiarism.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Additional OCR guidance states that discrimination against Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian students on the basis of their “actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” is also prohibited under Title VI.

According to the complaint, the University has allegedly violated Title VI by failing to enforce policies uniformly and instead enforcing policies on a “discriminatory basis.” The document also claims that AU has retaliated against some Jewish and Israeli students after they “[brought] concerns about possible civil rights problems to [the] school’s attention” by calling the students into disciplinary meetings.

Jewish on Campus is a national student-run organization that aims to “amplify the voices of Jewish students, strengthen Jewish identity, and combat hate to secure the future of the Jewish people,” according to their website. The Brandeis Center is an independent corporation that works to advance the civil and human rights of Jewish people, according to their website.

“Our goal really is that young people should be able to tell their own stories to advocate for our own experiences to have a voice as a community,” Julia Jassey, the CEO and co-founder of Jewish on Campus, said in an interview with The Eagle. “Jewish on Campus seeks to create that voice for students to encourage education and community activists to work with students to see what their experiences are and how we can help them to make the communities that place.”

One of the allegations in the complaint claims that the University holds Jewish and Israeli students to a “double standard” when it comes to enforcing the Student Conduct Code.

The complaint describes an incident in which five students, who are currently represented by the Brandeis Center, were brought into disciplinary meetings by the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices for taking video of students who were tearing down posters of Israeli hostages that were posted around campus following Oct. 7. The Office charged the students with harassment and disorderly conduct under the Student Conduct Code, stating that they were in violation of the code.

The code defines harassment as “an intimidating, severe, hostile, or coercive act – whether physical, verbal, cyber/electronic … which is intentional and/or persistent” and disorderly conduct as “conduct which a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, should be expected to know would disturb the peace.”

According to the complaint, students received initial emails on Nov. 15 regarding an “unspecified incident” and were not made aware that they were being investigated for disciplinary infractions until Dec. 5. One of the students, the president of the University chapter of Students Supporting Israel, was also sent a disciplinary notice “in his capacity as president of the organization” despite the fact that, according to the complaint, he did not participate in taking the videos or putting up posters himself and said that “SSI played no role whatsoever in these incidents.”

According to the complaint, an AU study abroad advisor informed three of the five students on Dec. 21 that “any disciplinary action resulting in probation occurring after [the students’] admission into their [study abroad] program may result in American University rescinding and revoking [the students’] participation and program enrollment.”

The document also claims that the University did not take disciplinary actions against the students who took down posters of Israeli hostages and replaced them with their own posters of Palestinians who have been killed in the conflict, stating that they were “removing unauthorized postings.” 

The University’s postering policy states that “all materials must be approved before posting and posted only on designated bulletin boards” and that “no community member should remove or deface any poster.” An email was sent reminding the AU community about the postering policy, stating that they were “investigating incidents of poster defacements” and that they would be addressed through the conduct process.

The complaint also claims that a pro-Palestine demonstration on Nov. 9 — which began in the School of International Service building and moved to the steps of the Mary Graydon Center after the AU Police Department removed the protestors from the SIS building — violated the Student Conduct Code. The code requires that protests “do not disrupt or interfere with classes, operations, normal use of university facilities, or other university-sponsored programs.” The document also states, according to “information and belief,” that the demonstrators were not subjected to disciplinary action by the University. 

Following a later protest held outside of a staff and faculty holiday party, the University sent an email stating that while protests are an element of freedom of expression, any behavior found to be “substantially disruptive to university operations” may be in violation of the Freedom of Expression Policy and the Student Conduct Code.

The other alleged Title VI violation concerns the University’s creation of a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. According to a “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education, failure to take “immediate and effective action” against reported harassment can be a violation of Title VI. A university can also be in violation if the harassment is “encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees.”

According to the complaint, Jewish and Israeli students filed multiple reports with both AUPD and the Office of Equity and Title IX regarding incidents of harassment in residence halls and classrooms by students and professors, but were either told that there was nothing to be done or received no response. 

The complaint also mentions the multiple vandalisms that occurred in residence halls of Swastikas and a “Nazi slogan,” as well as the defacing of a Department of Performing Arts recital poster, stating that the University’s response to the incidents has been “wholly inadequate.” The complaint also claims that The Eagle’s coverage of the defacing included “identifying details without permission,” which led to the student experiencing increased harassment on campus.

Beyond these public incidents, the document also notes an incident in which an unidentified student says she was singled out in a class and quotes several students who say they have had increased anxiety about their safety and belonging at the University since Oct. 7. The document also notes an incident where an unidentified student says that he was spit on multiple times by fellow students, canceled teaching multiple piano lessons due to feeling “frightened for his safety and well-being” on campus and suffers from “night terrors” due to constant stress and anxiety.

“When there are issues like we saw at American with students being targeted, having Swastikas drawn on their concert posters,” Jassey said. “If there’s not adequate measures taken to ensure that they feel safe and are able to equally participate in campus life, that's a time when a complaint can be used as a valid response.”

The complaint lists nine suggested remedies for the University administration to “protect its Jewish and Israeli community” and “ensure that members of the AU community are held accountable for engaging in or supporting discriminatory conduct.” 

The list is as follows:

  • Dismiss the disciplinary hearings and all charges against the five students and SSI by the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices. 
  • Compensate Student 1 for lost wages and cover the costs of therapy. 
  • Compensate Students 3, 4 and 5 in the event that the University interrupts their study abroad this semester. 
  • Ensure that all students are provided with a safe environment from harassment and discrimination in residential facilities by “establishing and/or revising existing policies and procedures” and “conducting a full investigation of discriminatory and harassing conduct against Jewish students.”
  • Ensure that the AU community understands the type of antisemitism that targeted Jewish students in these cases by providing training incorporating the IHRA working definition of antisemitism into AU’s discrimination policies. 
  • Enforce the University Code of Conduct equally and that AU should announce that any member of the community who violates it will be held accountable, including by suspension and expulsion
  • Issue a statement denouncing antisemitism in all forms and recognizing that Zionism is a key component of the Jewish identity for many students at AU. 
  • Appoint an independent investigator to examine the campus climate with specific attention to the climate for Jewish and Israeli members of the AU community. 
  • Create a task force composed of Jewish student leaders and Jewish faculty members that will provide input to AU administration. 

The University announced Wednesday that the AU Experience II course will experience multiple changes in the coming semester, including adding antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate to the curriculum. The program will also partner with the School of Public Affairs’ Polarization and Extreme Research and Innovation Lab to provide campus-wide programming on “antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate-fueled violence.”

“The growth of education around antisemitism and other forms of hatred, obviously, is always something that we think can be a positive step toward making campus a safe space,” Jassey said. “And that's always something that through our complaints we're hoping will lead to productive change.”

Some Jewish students have reported trying to write about their experiences being Jewish or the experiences of family members during the Holocaust while taking AUx2 and were not allowed, according to Deena Margolies, a lawyer at the Brandeis Center who is overseeing the complaint.

“We have been, and continue to be, concerned about that class,” Margolies said. “You know, I hope that Jewish students are allowed to write about their identity and their experience and bring it to the class and that [the class] isn’t what happened in the past.”

If the Office of Civil Rights decides to open an investigation into the University, an investigator will get in touch with the students mentioned in the complaint. According to Margolies, investigations have been opening faster since Oct. 7. Often the legal team will sit down with the university and go over suggested remedies. 

“When the OCR investigation is complete, the OCR mandates things that the university must do,” Margolies said. “And if the university doesn’t do those things, then they are in fear of losing federal funds that they get.”

In a statement emailed to The Eagle, Matt Bennett, AU’s vice president of communications and chief communications officer, wrote that the University received a letter that the Brandeis Center sent to the OCR, but have not received “any complaint from OCR.”

“We take these issues and any concerns in AU’s Jewish community seriously, and we review and address them,” Bennett wrote. “We will cooperate with any inquiries regarding our work to combat antisemitism.”

Bennett also wrote that the University has “taken decisive action to address antisemitism” including working with the FBI on investigations and engaging with Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel.

Ethan Kassar, a freshman in SPA and a member of the University chapter of SSI, is one of the students involved in the complaint, said that he worked on the complaint because “Jewish students at American University aren’t feeling safe on campus.” 

“There have been multiple incidents where [Jewish students] felt harassed verbally, there’s been a physical account, and we feel that the University isn’t protecting Jewish students equally,” Kassar said. “We hope that with the Brandeis Center and Jewish on Campus, [the complaint] can really help the University protect everyone.”

This article was edited by Zoe Bell, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Sarah Clayton.

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