Racial Harassment in Schools Surged in 2017


Photo of swastikas and a racial slur on the back of an East Penn School District bus by Upper Macungie Township, Pennsylvania, resident Sonia Topiarz, December 12, 2016.

Data from the United States Department of Education’s civil rights division shows a significant increase in racial harassment complaints in schools in 2017.

HuffPost reports the increase in the number of complaints is the biggest since at least 2009. Prior to fiscal year 2017, the number of complaints ranged from 362 to 577 annually. But in 2017, it rose to 675 — a nearly 25 percent increase from the previous year.

Many teachers also have seen an increase in hateful language and attitudes towards marginalized student groups, HuffPost reports. Evidence shows that racial discrimination in school negatively affects students’ ability to learn.

Despite the increase in racial harassment complaints, the Education Department is reducing resources and responsibilities for its Office of Civil Rights, which enforces federal laws designed to protect students from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. In June, the department announced it was scaling back investigations into civil rights violations in public schools and universities. OCR’s staff was reduced more than any other unit in the department last year, and the Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget would cut more than 40 OCR staff.

Last fall, education officials met with teachers and parents to talk about rescinding guidance issued in 2014 on racial disparities in school discipline. Black students are suspended, expelled, arrested, and referred to police at rates disproportionately higher than their white peers. 

Catherine Lhamon, who headed OCR during the Obama administration, told HuffPost that schools reflect the national climate. In light of data showing that hate crimes have been on the rise nationwide, Ms. Lhamon said “[i]t is distressingly unsurprising that there might be an uptick in racial harassment complaints coming to OCR.”

Preliminary police data show that the number of hate crimes in major American cities rose for the third consecutive year in 2017, driven by attacks on Jews, Muslims, African Americans, and LGBT people. The Anti-Defamation League reported in February that white supremacist groups have increasingly targeted college campuses since the 2016 election. Investigators found that the number of racist fliers, banners, and stickers found on college campuses was more than three times higher in 2017 than the previous year.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a nearly 25% increase in racial harassment complaints in schools in 2017.