Fueling conservative outrage over the Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case is the suggestion that the Obama administration refuses to pursue civil rights charges if the defendants are African-American. DOJ officials have said their decision not to pursue charges against some of the defendants originally named in a voter intimidation case filed in the final days of the Bush administration was based on the merits of the case and not the skin color of the defendants.
Now here’s the latest indication that no such policy exists: DOJ’s Civil Rights Division announced Wednesday they’d reached a settlement agreement with Philadelphia’s school district to protect Asian students at a South Philly high school from harassment by bullies who the students say are predominately African-American.
Asian students boycotted classes last December because they said school officials ignored both off-campus and lunchroom attacks on about 50 Asian students primarily at the hands of African-American students.
The Justice Department’s announcement — while not noting the race of the alleged offenders — notes an incident in December 2009 in which about 30 Asian students were attacked and about 13 were sent to the emergency room. But as this USA Today article makes clear, Asian students made clear the bullying came mostly from black students. The agreement says that Asian students were subjected to both verbal abuse and physical assaults in the cafeteria, hallways, classrooms and restrooms of the school.
“Schools have an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for everyone. We will continue to use all of the tools in our law enforcement arsenal to ensure that all students can go to school without fearing harassment,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez said in a statement. “I applaud the proactive steps taken by the school district to address this matter, as well as the courageous actions of students, parents and community leaders who came forward to call attention to the pervasive harassment.”
Just like in the New Black Panther case, the Civil Rights Division took civil action against the defendants and did not pursue a criminal case. The latest case targets the school system which allegedly ignored the harassment rather than the offenders themselves. And because the alleged discriminatory activity took place at a school, the agreement was reached by the Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities Section and not the Voting Section, which handled the New Black Panther Party case.
Still — in addition to DOJ’s continued pursuit of an African-American Democratic official in Mississippi accused in a scheme to disenfranchise white voters — it offers Obama administration defenders another argument to deflate the New Black Panther Party controversy.
The settlement agreement, said DOJ, ensures that the district:
…retains an expert consultant in the area of harassment and discrimination based on race, color and/or national origin to review the district’s policies and procedures concerning harassment; develops and implements a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student harassment at the high school; conducts training of faculty, staff and students on discrimination and harassment based on race, color and/or national origin and to increase multi-cultural awareness; maintains records of investigations and responses to allegations of harassment; and provides annual compliance reports to the department and the PHRC as well as makes harassment data publicly available.
The New Black Panther Party case could be one of the issues incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) could pursue in the new year. Holder told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday that he hoped Smith’s committee would “focus on things that are not going to be politically attractive but will be of substance.”
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama could make two new appointments to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights any day which could re-balance the government agency which doggedly pursued the New Black Panther issue under the reign of conservatives. The White House did not respond last week to TPM’s request for comment.