The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Lafayette had unsatisfactory response to online antisemitism says DOE investigation, college disputes

The Department of Education opened the investigation into Lafayette College over alleged antisemitic discrimination in November. (Photo courtesy of EdScoop)

The U.S. Department of Education, in a letter proposing a resolution agreement on Friday, raised concerns with Lafayette College over its failure to properly address alleged incidents of antisemitic harassment by students online. The college, despite agreeing to certain terms to resolve the complaint, questioned the department’s assessment. 

The reproach was part of the conclusion to a months-long investigation by the department’s Office for Civil Rights into a complaint alleging an antisemitic incident on campus. The college, in signing onto the resolution, agreed to policy revisions, campus-wide training on discrimination policies and to provide the department with information regarding similar investigations of alleged discrimination for the next two academic years.

Eleven previously undisclosed incidents of alleged antisemitic and Islamophobic harassment were reviewed by the department as a part of the investigation.

In the letter summarizing the investigation’s findings, the department acknowledged that while the college took proactive measures to prevent a hostile environment, “the College’s practices particularly with respect to notice of harassing conduct on social media were not reasonably designed, as required by Title VI, to redress any hostile environment.”

According to the Office for Civil Rights, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin, including shared ancestry, in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.”

On its website, Lafayette details its policy on “Equal Opportunity, Harassment and Non-Discrimination” and outlines resolution proceedings for alleged violations of its policy.

According to the website, the policy can be applicable in cases of off-campus misconduct that “effectively [deprives] someone of access to the College’s educational program.” 

“The college may also extend jurisdiction to off-campus and/or to online conduct when the Title IX Coordinator determines that the conduct affects a substantial college interest,” the site continues.

Sarah Moschenross, the vice president for Student Life, the division that the Title IX Coordinator position falls under, forwarded comment to Audra Kahr, the vice president for finance and administration, who could not be reached.

Five of the 11 reviewed incidents related to material posted on students’ personal social media accounts. In all five incidents, the college did not act and claimed that the material fell under the students’ right to free speech. This response was distinct from the college’s reaction to an incident related to material posted on a social media account affiliated with a college-recognized student group: in this incident, college administrators met with the executive board of the group to discuss the material.

“The College appears to have operated a categorical policy not to address allegations of harassment on private social media” unless the harassment constituted a direct threat, according to the department’s letter.

“This practice does not satisfy the Title VI obligation to take prompt and effective steps to redress a hostile environment about which the College knows; that requirement is not limited to conduct that occurs on campus or outside social media,” the letter continues.

In the letter, the department contrasted the college’s response to two incidents involving the controversial phrase “from the river to the sea.” When a student carried a poster with the phrase in an on-campus protest in October, the college chaplain said she met with the student on at least three occasions to discuss the impact of the sign and received an indication from the student that he would not use the phrase again in future protests. However, when the college received a report of the same phrase used on social media, the department claimed that it “declined to take responsive action.” Chaplain Alex Hendrickson could not be reached for comment.

“In this and repeatedly in other instances, the College documents reflect that it did not address whether social media and off campus conduct individually or collectively created or contributed to a hostile environment based on shared ancestry, which does not satisfy Title VI,” reads the letter.

A news release from the Department of Education on Friday alleges that while Lafayette did attempt to respond to complaints of harassment, “the College nonetheless misapplied the legal standard.”

Lafayette objected to this assessment.

“The College does have some concerns with OCR’s interpretation of how the College responds to students’ engagement with issues on their private social media accounts and in their off-campus engagement in protest or other related activities,” College Spokesman Scott Morse wrote in an email.

Morse stressed that the college voluntarily entered into an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights to “improve the climate on campus for all students, faculty, and staff.”

By signing onto the resolution, the college did not admit to wrongdoing or liability.

The agreement stipulates that Lafayette must do the following:

  • Review its policies and procedures to better address Title VI requirements
  • Provide training to employees responsible for investigating reports of discrimination –– Hurd wrote in a campus-wide email that this would be completed by Dec. 17
  • Provide training to students and staff addressing discrimination and harassment policies and procedures –– Hurd stated that this would also be completed by Dec. 17
  • Review its response to all reports of discrimination and harassment “on the basis of shared ancestry” during the 2023-24 academic year
  • Provide the Office of Civil Rights with information regarding its investigation of any alleged reports of discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry for the next two academic years

To fully commit to the agreement is “consistent with the College’s firm stance against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate speech of any kind, and with our determination to remain vigilant in protecting the safety and well-being of all our students, faculty, and staff,” wrote Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd in a campus-wide email sent Thursday. Hurd could not be reached for comment.

Isabella Gaglione ’25 contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified Chaplain Alex Hendrickson as the individual serving in the positions of Title IX Coordinator and Director of Educational Equity. The individual serving in these two positions is Amanda Hanincik. Correction made 6/26/24.

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Elisabeth Seidel, Managing Editor

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