US Department of Education Opens Civil Rights Investigation Into Chicago Public Schools, Area Universities Over Gaza Protests

Students at Lane Tech High School staged a walkout on Jan. 30, 2024, in support of a cease-fire in Gaza. (Paris Schutz / WTTW News)Students at Lane Tech High School staged a walkout on Jan. 30, 2024, in support of a cease-fire in Gaza. (Paris Schutz / WTTW News)

Chicago Public Schools is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for civil rights violations, according to the agency.

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Neither CPS officials nor a spokesperson with the Department of Education would comment on the nature of the investigation, but a CPS source says the probe stems from complaints of antisemitism filed with the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights leading up to and during a Jan. 30 student walkout at various CPS high schools supporting the Chicago City Council’s resolution for a cease-fire in Gaza.

The probe, which was opened Feb. 20, involves alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

The designation means the office has initiated an investigation, but does not mean any conclusion has been reached, according to the agency.

A CPS spokesperson said they could not go into detail about “any particular report or investigation due to student and staff privacy protections.”

“As a system, we recognize that the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has led to an increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents,” the statement reads. “While CPS actively works to promote student voice and protect students’ constitutional free speech rights, bias-based harm is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We have encouraged everyone to ensure their language and actions are respectful of their fellow school community members. Each one of us shares the responsibility to create a safe and welcoming working and learning environment, free from harassment.”

The statement says the district is reviewing any civil rights or harassment complaints internally through its Office of Student Protection.

Students at several CPS high schools participated in the Jan. 30 walkout supporting City Council’s resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, with some students marching to City Hall and protesting outside on the sidewalk.

Students at the protests carried signs calling offering support for Palestine and chanted slogans such as “our tax dollars are being used to commit war crimes.”

The planned events drew criticism from some Jewish groups who claim that there were reports of chants and slogans that were antisemitic in nature.

“It’s been a difficult experience for Jewish kids and Israeli kids who are part of CPS who describe themselves as Zionists,” said Jane Charney, Assistant Vice President of the Jewish United Fund, a group that has criticized City Council’s ordinance. “We’re really hoping that CPS pays close attention to the learning they can have from this experience and in terms of how they can approach Jewish teachers and staff when they’re saying that they are facing harassment, bias or hostility,” Charney said.

Israel declared war after Hamas militants killed some 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage on Oct. 7. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians and displaced an estimated 80% of Gaza’s population in what the United Nations says is a public health disaster.

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says the department has ramped up civil rights investigations since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict, probing K-12 school districts and institutions of higher education.

Those probes also include Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Hate has no place in our schools, period. When students are targeted because they are—or are perceived to be—Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn,” Cardona said in a statement released on Nov. 16, 2023. “These investigations underscore how seriously the Biden-Harris Administration, including the U.S. Department of Education, takes our responsibility to protect students from hatred and discrimination.”

Student newspaper The Daily Northwestern has reported the investigation at that school was initiated by a complaint from a conservative watchdog called Campus Reform, also alleging the university didn’t adequately respond to complaints of antisemitism.

“Northwestern does not tolerate antisemitism or discriminatory acts directed at any individual based upon their race, religion, national origin or other protected categories,” said spokesman Jon Yates at the time.

The UIC investigation was reportedly in response to student complaints about anti-Palestinian discrimination.  “We take all allegations of civil rights violations seriously and will fully cooperate with any inquiries that may arise from a complaint,” a school spokesperson said at the time.

The Department of Education also opened a civil rights investigation into suburban Oak Brook’s Butler District 53. Officials with that district could not be reached by phone.

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