A letter to the Secretary of Education about student safety

A letter to the Secretary of Education about student safety

April 29, 2024

Secretary Miguel Cardona
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona,

We are writing to you on behalf of our respective communities as allies in the fight for our shared safety, and as advocates with deep concerns for the rights and well-being of students across the nation. As you prepare to address pertinent issues in education ahead of your congressional hearing tomorrow, we implore you to prioritize the protection and dignity of students, particularly those who have been unfairly targeted and marginalized since the attacks of October 7.

In recent months, certain members of Congress have resorted to defamatory rhetoric against students peacefully protesting in support of Palestinian human rights. These students, often Arab American and Jewish American students simply exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, have been dangerously vilified as foreign agents and equated with terrorists.Such baseless accusations not only undermine the fundamental principles of democracy but also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and discrimination, while also leading to potential acts of hate and violence against those vulnerable students.

We, like you, are committed to fighting hate in all its form, including any incidents of antisemitism that may arise in these protest movements. However, the defamation of this mass student anti-war movement as antisemitic must also be rejected. Like all of us, students have a right to advocate for Palestinian human rights without being maligned by the serious charge of hate. It is also critical to acknowledge that many of the protestors being unjustly labeled as antisemitic are Jewish students who are deeply committed to social justice and human rights.Their participation in these protests stems from a sincere desire to advocate for peace, equality, and the rights of all individuals, including Palestinians. To conflate their activism with antisemitism or to dismiss their voices is not only misguided but also undermines the rich diversity of perspectives within the Jewish community.

The pretense and singular focus on the safety of Jewish students from members of Congress and university administrations breaks down when considering the number of Jewish students who have been arrested or suspended for joining protests.Further, this singular focus ignores the safety of Arab American students, especially those of Palestinian descent, on campuses, or that of all the other students that make up this incredibly diverse coalition. Our collective work must put student safety first and that must apply to all students. When any one student group is singled out — either for protection or for discrimination — they, and all students, are made less safe.

It is imperative to remind Congress that robust mechanisms and safeguards already exist within the Department of Education to address instances of antisemitism, anti-Arab racism, and all forms of hate on college campusesPresently, there are ongoing Title VI cases at numerous universities, including Columbia University, demonstrating the Department's commitment to upholding the civil rights of students.The relevant government authorities are currently taking serious action to ensure the civil rights of students are respected on campuses. By approaching incidents of discrimination seriously via the rigorous and established procedures set in place, we ensure that that allegations of discrimination are thoroughly investigated and addressed, not politicized.

In many cases, university leadership has, regrettably, succumbed to political pressure. Instead of clearly communicating and enforcing existing structures to ensure safety and the upholding of cherished democratic values, some administrators have repressed protest and productive dialogue. In particular, we are deeply troubled by the alarming escalation of violence perpetrated against these students by law enforcement agencies, at the behest of college administrators.Rather than fostering an environment conducive to dialogue and understanding, the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors has only served to suppress dissent and instill fear among the student community.

Secretary Cardona, we are grateful for your critical leadership at this time and your unwavering commitment to protecting the rights of all students. We are reminded by your decision in 2022 to host a student at the Department of Education who was barred from delivering their valedictorian commencement speech because of viewpoint discrimination, in that case referencing their activism in support of LGBTQI+ rights. You noted that protecting First Amendment freedoms in ourschools is essential and that, “When students speak, we must listen.” You were right then, Mr. Secretary, and you are right now. As you address Congress, we urge you to continue to advocate for the protection of all students, including Arab American and Jewish American students, while upholding their right to peacefully protest and rejecting their defamation.

Thank you for your consideration of our perspective on this serious matter. Should you have any questions, your staff may contact Margaret Lowry, AAI Policy Counsel at [email protected] or Arielle Gingold, Policy and Advocacy Consultant at [email protected].


Maya Berry
Executive Director, Arab American Institute

Jamie Beran
Chief Executive Officer, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action

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