Education Department saw a rise in racial harassment complaints in schools last year

There was a nearly 25 percent increase in racial harassment complaints in fiscal year 2017.

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participates in a meeting with President Donald. J. Trump at The White House on February  22, 2018. CREDIT: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images
United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participates in a meeting with President Donald. J. Trump at The White House on February 22, 2018. CREDIT: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

There was a meaningful uptick in the number of racial harassment complaints in schools last year. The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education received a significantly higher number of racial harassment complaints in 2017, according to HuffPost.

In fiscal year 2017, there was a nearly 25 percent rise from fiscal year 2016 in the number of these complaints. Over the last nine years, the number of the division’s complaints on racial harassment in schools ranged between 362 to 577 and only climbed to more than 600 complaints in fiscal year 2017, according to HuffPost. This increase in complaints of this kind is the largest since at least 2009.

There is some evidence that racial harassment, as well as harassment on the basis of gender, religion, and immigration status, is on the rise in schools. A few weeks after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on harassment of immigrants, students of color, LGBTQ students, female students, and Muslims. Four out of 10 educators reported hearing derogatory language used toward these groups. The same share of teachers said they didn’t think their schools had plans to address these kinds of incidents. One Minnesota teacher said she witnessed an incident where a male student grabbed a female student’s crotch and said it’s “legal for him to do that to her now.”

ThinkProgress began tracking hate incidents after the 2016 presidential election and found that in three months, there were at least 261 hate incidents across the country. Forty-two percent of the incidents ThinkProgress tracked included specific references to Trump, his election, or his policies.


The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino conducted a study on hate crimes and estimated that hate crimes rose 5 percent in 2016. The rise in hate crimes estimated to be listed in the FBI’s 2016 Unified Crime Report would have been the highest since 2012.

The author of the study, Professor Brian Levin, told ThinkProgress at the time, “What is so unusual about 2016 ― with the exception of the Midwest ― and particularly among the largest jurisdictions with the best data, was a clear and dramatic spike for the election period that was unlike anything I can recall in my professional career.”

There is evidence to show that racial discrimination affects students’ ability to learn. A 2016 study found that racial stressors such as perceived discrimination and stereotype threat may partially explain racial and ethnic disparities in academic performance gaps between some students of color and white students. Stereotype threat is when students feel they are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an ethnic group, a racial group or cultural group.

Despite the environment of hate incidents in and outside of school, the Education Department said it wants to narrow the scope of the Office for Civil Rights’ investigations, the Associated Press reported in October after obtaining a department document. During the Obama administration, OCR would investigate individual complaints while also considering whether there was a systemic problem at the school or school district. Under the proposed changes, the department said it would remove the word “systemic” from guidelines and instead focus on individual complaints. The AP reported that another revision of the OCR’s work would let schools negotiate with the department before parents see any of the department’s findings.

The department could weaken other civil rights protections for students of color. In November, Trump education officials met with teachers and parents to talk about the possibility of rescinding 2014 Obama administration guidance on racial disparities in how schools discipline students. The guidance also addressed the issue of higher suspensions for students with disabilities.


On average, 16 percent of Black students are suspended compared to 5 percent of white students and 13 percent of students with disabilities are suspended compared to 6 percent of those without disabilities, according to Education Department data.

Trans students, who often experience discrimination in their schools, have been ignored by the department. Earlier this month, the department also said it would not investigate transgender students’ complaints about discrimination regarding use of school bathrooms that correspond to their gender.

In an interview with the Detroit News this week, Betsy DeVos graded her performance as Education Secretary over the past year.

“I would say a solid B+ to an A-,” DeVos said.