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US Dept. of Education investigates complaint of alleged anti-Palestinian harassment at UMass Amherst

 The UMass campus overlooking academic buildings and the W.E.B. Du Bois library [far left].
Nirvani Williams
The UMass campus overlooking academic buildings and the W.E.B. Du Bois library [far left].

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating claims made by 18 UMass Amherst students who said the school discriminated against Palestinian students amid Israel’s war in Gaza.

The civil rights complaint said that despite repeated communication to over a dozen administrators and Title IXofficials, the school was "extremely slow to take action" against anti-Palestinian harassment on campus. The students said this facilitated a "hostile environment."

The students worked with the advocacy group, Palestine Legal, to file the complaint.

The university has issued a statement saying it is aware of the complaint and that it will "cooperate fully" with the department as it conducts the investigation.

"By policy and aligned with its values of maintaining an inclusive, respectful learning, teaching and working environment, the University of Massachusetts Amherst does not tolerate discrimination based on national origin under its Affirmative Action, Non-Discrimination, and Title IX Non-Discrimination Policy," the statement reads.

"Additionally, the university has condemned hatred in all forms... Antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any form of bigotry have no place in our community, and we are committed to ensuring that our community’s engagement with opposing viewpoints is maintained in a respectful manner."

UMass Chancellor Javier Reyes said the university is committed to the rights of their students.

"I think we've done well and people disagree with us,” Reyes said. “The investigation will ensue, but I have complete trust in the team that we have done very well and the right things for our students, our faculty and our staff abiding by our policies and defending the rights of everyone."

The Department of Education declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

A civil rights attorney, who wrote most of the complaint and is working with Palestine Legal, said students involved in a pro-Palestine sit-in were treated differently by UMass police than other groups and organizations in the past.

While the university has arrested students in the past for sitting in and occupying the administration building, they believe students have never been arrested so quickly, the attorney said, adding that the administration sent the police in immediately as soon as the building closed and started making arrests.

The attorney also said the students allege they were then discriminated against by UMass police after their arrests, pressing them with criminal charges and treating some students, who are Arab, badly. The complaint mentions one student being handcuffed to a wall for the entire night. Students were allegedly overcrowded in cells.

Emanuelle Sussman, a senior, vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine, and one of the students issuing the complaint, said she’s had to watch her friends involved in the protest sink into an unrecognizable state from the stress the school has caused them.

“I've just kind of had to witness them sink into this state of academic recluse. Our lives have just been completely different and it's just horrible to see them basically in this paralyzed state of fear and anguish and no psychological support or anything from the school,” Sussman said.

Sussman said their goal for issuing this complaint is to force UMass to be more transparent with their students.

“I want UMass to release a statement condemning the genocide,” Sussman said. “I want UMass to acknowledge its ties with Raytheon. That's what is ideal. And it's ideal that, you know, this complaint will hopefully propel the school to be more transparent, be more engaged and be more responsive.”

Disclaimer: We should note, the license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. The newsroom operates independently.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.

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