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Here's how the U.S. government plans to tackle religious discrimination in public schools

Posted 9:00 a.m. Thursday

In the midst of a presidential campaign where religion — particularly Islam — has been a major point of discussion, the U.S. Department of Education has announced new efforts to track religious discrimination in public schools.

The agency revealed its plans in a July 22 statement, saying that steps will now officially be taken to "encourage respect for students of all faiths and beliefs," as was previously reported.

It's a move the Department of Education said will help protect all religious students, though there's a more overt focus on minority religions like Islam and Judaism due to the specific constraints adherents face.

"Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools," Catherine E. Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said in the statement.

Since the department's Office of Civil Rights enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, students of any religion are protected from discrimination based on ethnic characteristics, shared ancestry or "citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity."

With that in mind, the federal government noted some key steps officials will take starting this school year to monitor faith-based discrimination in schools.

First, the Department of Education launched a new website through its Office for Civil Rights featuring information about federal laws barring religious discrimination. The site also lists resolved cases, and other relevant information.

In June, the Office of Civil Rights also released a fact sheet about how to combat discrimination against Arabs, Sikhs, Muslims, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and South Asian students.

To complement these efforts, the government updated an online complaint form for the filing of faith-based grievances; people of all faiths can wage a complaint.

The Department of Education offered up examples of Jewish kids being bullied with anti-Semitic messages or Muslim students being called terrorists as potential catalysts that could lead to a filing.

The government also plans to help public schools navigate the complex process of confronting discrimination when it unfolds.

"Where schools have records of failing to address hostile environments, OCR seeks and secures commitments from them to improve their harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, and conduct school climate surveys," the statement read.

Officials will offer technical assistance to schools through Equity Assistance Centers — training centers offering guidance to schools surrounding equal educational opportunities involving gender, race or national origin; these centers will now also offer training in combating religious discrimination.

Additionally, the Department of Education will start collecting more data from schools, including the number of incidents involving faith-based harassment or bullying, offering a lens into the depth and scope of the problem.

Officials previously sent a "dear colleague" letter to schools in December 2015, calling for "safe, respectful and nondiscriminatory learning environments."

The areas of concern expressed in the letter were race, religion and national origin, with the Department of Education asking schools to be vigilant in combatting these issues.

The new guidance comes following a series of terror attacks from radical Islamic extremists over the past year — attacks that have, in some cases, led to increased discrimination against Muslims here in America.

This, combined with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's initial call for a Muslim immigration ban, has worried some Islamic advocates, who believe that controversial rhetoric has led to increased discrimination.

"Everything from being called ‘terrorist’ to jokes about ‘Where is your bomb?’ Obviously, they are not really jokes," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Washington Post.

He said such rhetoric creates toxicity in schools and leads students to feel attacked due to their Muslim faith.

Advocates hope that the government's efforts can help change some of this.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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