For the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began, the Department of Education is moving forward with several investigations into U.S. colleges and schools where students have reported antisemitism or Islamophobia.
The department has opened the investigations under Title IV, a law that bans discrimination based on race or a person's shared ancestry. So far, there are five antisemitism cases and two Islamophobia cases under investigation at seven different schools, including Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, Columbia University, in New York City, the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and others.
If the investigations determine that schools violated the law, they could lose federal funding or be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action.
"Ultimately, removal of federal dollars is something that can happen, but that would require someone to refuse to create safe learning environments. That's not the culture that we have on our campuses," Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in an interview with ABC News on Friday.
"The goal is not to punish students by withdrawing money from universities. That's never the goal. The goal is to create safe learning environments," Cardona said.
This comes as complaints streamed into the Office of Civil Rights at record numbers over the last few weeks as campuses struggled to deal with tensions mounting since the start of the war. Last week, the Biden administration sent a letter to schools reminding them that in order to receive federal funding, they have a legal obligation to "address prohibited discrimination against students and others on your campus—including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian."
Thousands of people have died and thousands more have been injured since the terrorist group Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Israel retaliated with a bombing campaign and a total siege of the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Other schools being investigated so far include Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, New York and a school district in Kansas, the Maize Unified School District in Maize.
And because of the sharp rise in complaints over the last few weeks, the list of investigations will likely increase, the secretary said.
"I expect there to be more open investigations," Cardona said. "What it tells us is that we're seeing an increase. It tells us that we're hearing from folks that are feeling unsafe, and it's our responsibility to look into the matter."
At least two of the schools, the University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College, were recently the focus of a 27-page complaint filed to the Office of Civil Rights by the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights legal organization, which alleged multiple antisemitic incidents on Penn's campus, including threatening emails to faculty, and described a letter to Wellesley students from a residential advisor (RA) that allegedly said "there should be no space, no consideration, and no support for Zionism within the Wellesley College community."
"Wellesley was recently notified by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that it will be conducting a review into the complaint filed by the Brandeis Center. OCR is a neutral agency tasked with ensuring that higher education institutions are complying with the law; OCR's decision to investigate does not presume that Wellesley has violated any federal civil rights laws," a Wellesley College spokesperson said.
"Wellesley responded quickly and decisively to the incident involving student leaders in a residence hall detailed in the Brandeis Center complaint and has shared its response in multiple communications to our community, while making clear antisemitism has no place at Wellesley."
In a statement to ABC News' affiliate, WPVI, a spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania confirmed Thursday evening they also received a letter informing them of the investigation and said they "look forward to cooperating fully with the Department." Penn did not confirm that the letter was specific to the Brandeis Center's claim.
"The University is taking clear and comprehensive action to prevent, address, and respond to antisemitism, with an action plan anchored in the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. President [Liz] Magill has made clear antisemitism is vile and pernicious and has no place at Penn; the University will continue to vigilantly combat antisemitism and all forms of hate," the university said.
At Lafayette College, President Nicole Hurd responded on Friday signaling that the university was surprised to be included in the investigation, though suspected it could be because of a "problematic poster at a peaceful event on Oct. 25 that was quickly addressed."
"We find any OCR complaint concerning and are fully cooperating with their review. At the same time, we have not seen incidents like those that have occurred at other campuses. To the contrary, as recently as last week, students of differing views shared a peaceful gathering on campus to honor all those who have died in the recent violence in the Middle East," Hurd said.
In Kansas, Maize Unified School District told ABC News' affiliate in Kansas, KAKE, that it was also informed by the Department of Education of the investigation, but not of the specific complaint the Office of Civil Rights was looking into.
"Maize USD 266 takes allegations of discrimination seriously and is committed to cooperating fully with any investigation. The school district is dedicated to providing a place for teaching and learning that prioritizes and champions respect and inclusivity and where all students and employees feel safe and valued."
Columbia University, Cornell University, and Cooper Union had no comment when reached by ABC News.
Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the start of the Israel-Hamas war, tensions have flared on college campuses, both as large protests have been held calling for a ceasefire or in support for Israel, and in hateful incidents of antisemitism or Islamophobia that has been on the rise nationwide.
At Stanford University in Palo Alto, earlier this month, an Arab Muslim student said he was hit by a vehicle by a driver he said shouted, "f--- you and your people." The incident is being investigated by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office as a hate crime.
Around the same time, a Cornell University student was charged with making threats against Jewish students on the campus, according to federal charges filed by the Justice Department on Oct. 31. and three Jewish students at New York University filed a lawsuit earlier this week alleging the school has failed to protect them from escalating antisemitism, which they say has worsened since the start of the war.
NYU has defended itself, saying the claims in the students' lawsuit "do not accurately describe conditions on our campus or the many steps NYU has been taking to fight antisemitism and keep the campus safe," a spokesperson for the college said.
Nationwide, both Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups have seen startling increases in reports of antisemitic or Islamophobic incidents.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim advocacy organization, said in the four weeks after the war began, they received 1,283 requests for help and reports for bias, a 216% increase over the previous year. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, reported a 316% increase in incidents through Nov. 13 as compared to this time last year. The group said it documented 832 incidents of assault, vandalism, and harassment across the U.S., for an average of nearly 28 incidents a day.