WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation after an organization filed a federal civil rights complaint against George Washington University (GWU).
“They [Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] don’t always do this so if they review any case that gets filed, they only open an investigation if they think the facts warrant further investigation. [If] they think there’s a potential violation here, ” said Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal.
Palestine Legal, an organization that provides legal advice, training, advocacy, and litigation support to college students, activists, and others who call for justice in Palestine, filed a Title VI Complaint against GWU. The filing came after Palestinian students complained about mistreatment and discrimination.
The organization said it first got involved at the university a few years back when it represented a student who was facing disciplinary punishment for having a Palestinian flag on a dorm window, despite the fact that students of other nationalities had flags outside their windows and did not face any punishment.
That incident was resolved and the president of the school apologized to the student.
“In more recent times, we started getting involved at GW when, in 2021, following Israel’s assault on Gaza that May, an office on GW campus attempted to provide trauma support services for Palestinian community members and was actually prevented from doing so by the university,” said Saba.
He added that one of the students who asked for support was in Palestine in 2021 and was hurt in the conflict with Israel.
Saba said the issue resulted in George Washington University’s Office of Advocacy and Support, which was tasked with providing support for members of the GW community who experience trauma, being shut down.
“The staff members who worked in that office, one by one, were basically forced out and prevented from being able to do their jobs,” said Saba.
“There’s a number of other incidents also in the complaint about incidents in classrooms with professors making anti-Palestinian comments. And in total basically, what we allege is that this constitutes an anti-Palestinian climate that’s interfering with students and other community members’ ability to enjoy educational resources in the same way that students of other backgrounds are able to, simply by virtue that they are Palestinian,” said Saba.
The complaint filed by Palestine Legal was on behalf of three students.
“We’re definitely encouraged that they [Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights] have opened this investigation, which will be the first public investigation into anti-Palestinian racism on a university campus, so this is a big deal, and it’s definitely encouraging,” said Saba.
One of the students, who asked not to be identified, told DC News Now that despite enjoying his/her program at the university, being there has become increasingly uncomfortable. The student described experiencing “insinuations of the savagery of the Palestinian people” and people’s belief “that we are the instigators of our own demise.”
The federal complaint states that, for years, Palestinian students have dealt with anti-Palestinian comments in class, been investigated by GWU police, denied access to mental health services, and falsely accused of committing crimes.
“As Palestinians coming to the U.S., Canada, my parents, and I’m sure many other kids can attest to this, you’re told to shut up, you’re told to not say anything, no matter how much you feel the need to,” said the student, who asked not to be named. “It reached the point where I was at a crossroads of I can just stay quiet like I always have and nothing happens….Or I can use my voice and take on the opportunity that was handed to me and actually try to create some change.”
DC News Now reached out to George Washington University regarding The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opening a formal investigation. The school provided a statement, saying: “The university is in receipt of the request for information from the U.S. Department of Education and will respond to the department’s inquiry.”