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Pa. Sens. Fetterman, Casey introduce legislation to address ongoing college campus discrimination

  • By Betul Tuncer, Erin Yudt/WESA
Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, left, and Sen. Bob Casey, right.

 AP Photo

Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, left, and Sen. Bob Casey, right.

Democratic Pennsylvania Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey joined Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) in introducing the Protecting Students on Campus Act last Thursday in a bipartisan bid to help college students across the country address discrimination based on their race, color or national origin.

The “Protecting Students on Campus Act” would:

  • Improve student awareness of how to report alleged civil rights violations regarding race, color, or national origin.
  • Require colleges and universities that receive federal funding to post on their homepage a link to OCR’s website where students can submit complaints.
  • Require colleges and universities that receive federal funding to post materials on how to file OCR complaints in physical locations on campus and online, including accessible elements such as auditory assistance to maximize all students’ awareness of the OCR complaint process.
  • Require OCR to brief Congress monthly on:
    • The number of complaints OCR receives
    • OCR’s plans to address those complaints
    • How long complaints have been pending with OCR
  • Require the ED Inspector General to audit colleges and universities that report the highest number of discrimination complaints relative to their student population.
  • Prohibit OCR from closing or dismissing complaints due to resolutions by another federal, state, or local civil rights enforcement agency to ensure students receive justice.

The legislation comes amidst a recent rise in antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment across college campuses and nationally following the escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel since Oct. 7.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that in the eight weeks since Oct. 7, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased 337%, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recorded 2,171 reports of bias or requests for help — 172% more than the 2022 two-month average.

Robert McCaw, director of the government affairs department at CAIR, said facilitating the report of bias incidents on college campuses is a “positive step,” but worries about the potential implications the legislation could have for Muslim students as “religion is not currently designated as a protected class.” McCaw added that this is something CAIR and other organizations have advocated for years.

“How this law could take effect and how the Department of Education prioritizes complaints, or college deems it, could potentially favor some classes of students over others, so we would hope it would be equitably implemented,” he said.

McCaw also raised concern over the framing of the bill as partially in response to growing politicization and support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses, especially among Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students.

Fetterman’s media office did not specifically respond to a request for comment on McCaw’s concerns, but noted that the introduction of the bill directly addressed the rise of Islamophobia on campuses along with antisemitism.

“Diversity is our strength as a country. No student should face hostility or violence for who they are, what they look like, where they’re from, or what they believe,” said Senator Fetterman in a news release last Thursday. “Amid a despicable rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in our country, I am proud to introduce this bill with my colleagues to empower students facing discrimination to take action and hold universities accountable in protecting students.”

Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said reports to the organization of bias incidents have “died down” amid the holiday season.

In 2021, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh logged 82 reports of antisemitic incidents and safety concerns. In 2023, the number had almost tripled to 237 by the end of October.

“I would say the third week in December, we were seeing on average, two to three incidents a day being reported to our office,” Brokos said. “But we definitely saw a lull in activity, and some of that could be attributed to students no longer being on campus and going to school for that winter break.”

The federation has started offering free self-defense classes in response to recent activity, and more information can be found on their website.

The bill has been read twice to the Senate and has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where it awaits further action.

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