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Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s Remarks at the Leading Safe, Inclusive, and Non-Discriminatory Learning Environments Webinar (Pre-K through 12 Session)

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Thank you, everyone for joining us for today’s webinar on Leading Safe, Inclusive, and Nondiscriminatory Learning Environments.

We are hosting this webinar as a proactive strategy to support efforts to address increased reports of antisemitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab harassment at school campuses in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war.

Make no mistake: this webinar is intended to provide support as you work to protect children.

We’ll start today with a session focused on the P-12 level. Later today, we will have a session for higher education.

As I speak to you on these issues, I speak as your Secretary of Education – but I’m also speaking as a parent of two, one who’s in college and another who is in public high school.

Earlier this year, I dropped my daughter Celine off for her first day of school. It’s a non-negotiable tradition for us that I value as a father.

And as I sat in the car after she had gone into school, the first thought on my mind wasn’t, “I hope she does well in her classes this year.” Or “I hope she learns something amazing that expands her view of her potential.” No. I was thinking, “please, God, I pray that she is safe this year.”

So, I understand very well that any parent’s top concern when their child goes to school is their safety and well-being, whether the school is down the street or across the country. And rightly so – because if a student doesn’t feel safe or included, or fears that they’ll be subject to hate and discrimination, that profoundly affects their lives and their ability to learn.

In the weeks and months after the October 7th attack in Israel by Hamas we know those concerns have been at the forefront for so many students and parents, especially for those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Israeli, Arab, or Palestinian.

I’ve met with Jewish leaders who’ve emphasized, again and again, that although antisemitism has always been a concern, we have never seen antisemitic incidents and threats at this level before. Let me be clear: advocating for the systematic murder of Jews is dangerous and revolting. It is essential that all leaders in the field of education speak about such issues in a way that is unmistakably clear. No one should doubt where we stand regarding calls for genocide, whether of the Jewish community or any other.

And I’ve heard from Muslim and Arab leaders for whom Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry, and the hate-fueled attacks, bullying, and harassment that come with them, have been all too familiar for years. Now, as Attorney General Garland has said, “we are seeing an increase in reported threats against faith communities, particularly Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities and institutions.” And we are all mourning the barbaric killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American Muslim boy, and the brutal attack on his mother in their home outside Chicago.

As we head into the final weeks of the semester, the pain that many students, teachers, and staff are feeling is especially acute. As one community member told us, “Our students can’t learn when they’re afraid.”

It’s why President Biden, and all of us at the Department of Education, have said it loud and clear: hate has no place in our schools. It’s why we played a leading role in the development of the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism and it’s why we are playing a key role in the development of the National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia and related forms of bias and discrimination.

We must be direct and unapologetic in condemning any hate in our schools and we must do everything in our power to ensure every student is safe in their schools.

Of course, if you’re a parent like me, you won’t be satisfied with nice words. You’ll want to know what is being done to make a safe, inclusive, and non-discriminatory learning environment for your child. You want to know what recourse you have when discrimination occurs.

And if you’re an educator or a school principal, as I was during the racism toward Arab Americans after the terrorist acts of 9/11, you want to know the concrete resources and options you have to build a safe and inclusive school community.

That’s what today’s webinar is about. We want you to have better tools at your fingertips. As we have seen, leading during this time can be very challenging. In addition to ensuring your you’re your obligations under the law, we want you to have resources that can help you do your jobs. You will hear from senior leaders here at the Department who will share what steps they are urging P-12 schools to maintain safe and inclusive learning environments.

Today’s session will be a balance of sharing civil rights laws, resources, and examples that we can learn from. It’s our response to what we hear from you. You want to do what’s right, and resources would help.

First, we’re going to start with Catherine Lhamon, our Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, to talk about the important levers we have under federal civil rights law to address discrimination, including harassment.

Last month, OCR released a Dear Colleague letter reminding schools of their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide all students – including students who are perceived to be Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Arab, or Palestinian, a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.

Remember: anyone who believes that a school has discriminated against a student based on race, color, or national origin – including shared ancestry and national origin – can file a complaint of discrimination with OCR.

Catherine, over to you.

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