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Education Department opens probes into alleged antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at universities

If the schools are found to have violated federal nondiscrimination law and don't remedy the issue, they could lose federal funding or face Justice Department action.
A New York State Police Department cruiser is parked in front of Cornell University's Center for Jewish Living on Oct 30, 2023.
A New York state police cruiser is parked in front of Cornell University's Center for Jewish Living on Oct 30.David Bauder / AP

WASHINGTON — The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights opened investigations this week into alleged antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at a half-dozen U.S. colleges and universities and a local school district.

The schools include Cornell University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College, Wellesley College, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the Maize Unified School District in Kansas.

Five of the complaints received involving the schools allege antisemitic harassment and two allege anti-Muslim harassment, according to the Education Department. The department did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for additional details.

The schools are being investigated for alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, the department said.

"All colleges, and universities and K-12 schools receiving federal funds must comply with Title VI," the department said in a release detailing the investigations. "Schools that violate the law and refuse to address the problems identified by OCR can ultimately lose federal funding or be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action."

The department said the investigation into the allegations are part of the Biden administration's efforts "to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination and harassment on college campuses and in K-12 schools since the October 7 Israel-Hamas conflict."

Asked for further details on the alleged incidents under investigation, the department said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Since Hamas' terrorist attack Oct. 7, a number of incidents have been reported at U.S. schools. Federal officials, for example, charged a Cornell University student with allegedly posting threats of violence against Jewish students in an online forum on campus in Ithaca, New York. The University of Pennsylvania recently alerted the FBI to “vile, disturbing antisemitic emails” threatening violence against the Jewish community on the Philadelphia campus.

Lafayette College's assistant vice president for communications and marketing, Scott Morse, said the college received a notification about the complaint Thursday morning, but school officials "do not know why" the college was included in the investigation. He said students of differing views held a peaceful gathering on campus recently to honor those who have died in the conflict in the Middle East, but added that the school will cooperate fully with the investigation.

Columbia University declined to comment on the investigation, but spokesman Ben Chang noted that it has taken various actions in the last month to address the issue, including the president forming a task force on antisemitism. Cornell University also declined to comment.

The executive director of communications for the Maize school district, Lori O'Toole Buselt, said that it was notified that it's under investigation but said a copy of the complaint was not provided, so it couldn't comment further.

The University of Pennsylvania said in a statement that it is taking “clear and comprehensive action to prevent, address, and respond to antisemitism.”

Wellesley said in a statement that the incidents being investigated involved student leaders in a residence hall, which it said it responded to. The complaint also included allegations about a teach-in in which several faculty shared historical context and perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with students. 

Cooper Union did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment.