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Antisemitic bullying at Dallas high school alleged in federal civil rights complaint

The complaint, co-filed by StandWithUs, was filed as American campuses are grappling with reverberations of the Israel-Hamas war.


By Talia Richman | Dallas News | April 10, 2024


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


A Dallas teenager faced antisemitic bullying at Hillcrest High School and district officials failed to adequately respond, a federal civil rights complaint alleges.


The student was taunted with names like “dirty Jew,” heard other teens praise Hitler and was told to “Go bathe in Auschwitz where you belong,” according to the complaint. He reported swastika drawings to the administration, including one in a bathroom stall alongside the words: “Burn the Jews.”


The 17-page complaint detailed how the teenager, who is not named, kept a log of antisemitic incidents dating back to 2021. The filing was submitted Tuesday to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by the student and StandWithUs, a nonprofit that works to combat antisemitism and support Israel.


“Despite the fact that all of these incidents took place in DISD classrooms, and though [the student] is aware that at least some of these horrific comments were heard by faculty members present at the time, there is no evidence of any appropriate response consistent with DISD policy or federal regulation and guidance,” the complaint states.


Dallas schools spokeswoman Robyn Harris said the district will not comment on issues related to student privacy and has not formally received the complaint.


“Dallas ISD prides itself on fostering a diverse and inclusive environment that celebrates all ethnicities, religions, cultures, and backgrounds,” she said in a statement. “Any attempt to undermine this belief is taken very seriously, as we have zero tolerance for such behavior.”


While the issues alleged in the complaint date back to 2021, its filing comes at a time when American campuses increasingly are grappling with reverberations of the Israel-Hamas war.


After the war broke out, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde released a statement stressing that “antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian, racism, or discrimination of any kind has no place in Dallas ISD.”


The family’s complaint lays out steps they want Dallas ISD compelled to do, including the appointment of an investigator to examine campus climate, a task force on how to improve Jewish life in the district and age-appropriate programming on addressing antisemitic harassment.


The Office for Civil Rights enforces federal laws that protect students against discrimination. The office is tasked with investigating complaints at colleges, universities and K-12 campuses. The probes regularly take months — even years — to reach a resolution.


If investigators determine a school violated the law and local officials refuse to address the issue, it can put their federal funding at risk. Cases can also be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice.


A month after the Israel-Hamas war began in the fall, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon released a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding school leaders of their legal obligation to address discrimination against Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students based on their identities.


“Hate-based discrimination, including based on antisemitism and Islamophobia among other bases, have no place in our nation’s schools,” she wrote.


The Biden administration later shared a list of educational institutions under investigation for discrimination involving shared ancestry. It includes more than 120 open probes. Many of them began after the start of the war.


StandWithUs has filed federal civil rights complaints against several universities across the country in recent months. The Dallas ISD complaint is its first against a public school district.

The Hillcrest student is an intern with StandWithUs, which is based in California.


Campus climate

The war began Oct. 7 when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 people hostage. Many of the hostages remain in Gaza.


After the attack, the Hillcrest student said he heard that Jews are “just getting what they deserve. Free Palestine!” according to the complaint.


The ongoing Israel-Hamas war has roiled American schools.


College campuses, in particular, have seen high-profile protests calling attention to the plight of civilians in Gaza. Many have demanded a cease-fire as conditions there worsen.

The Palestinian death toll from the war has passed 33,200, with nearly 76,000 wounded, Gaza’s Health Ministry said. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tally, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.


Gov. Greg Abbott recently said in a statement that acts of antisemitism began growing “in number, size and danger to the Jewish community” since the Oct. 7 attack.


He issued an executive order last month requiring all public colleges and universities in the state to review free speech policies, to lay out punishments for antisemitic rhetoric on campuses, to ensure administrators enforce those policies and to include the definition of antisemitism.


The Hillcrest family said in the complaint that they previously filed a local grievance with Dallas ISD. It highlighted that “one or more of the bullies is often another Jewish student.”

“The fact that a Jewish student is displaying biased and prejudicial behavior... is a strong indicator of the urgent need for HHS to provide education, increase awareness, and make efforts to combat antisemitism in all its forms,” it read.


Dallas ISD allegations

The Hillcrest student’s experiences were met with inadequate responses from school officials, according to the filing.


For example, the complaint alleges when the student showed his teacher that a classmate drew a swastika on his paper, the educator’s only response was to try erasing the Nazi symbol.


The family asked school leaders to host educational programming for students and staff on antisemitism.


“Hillcrest staff … failed to provide any such training,” the complaint states.


“Unsurprisingly, [the student] reported losing all faith in the faculty and administration’s interest in keeping him safe or taking his concerns seriously.”


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