Public school (illustrative)
Public school (illustrative)iStock

A public school district in suburban New York is being investigated for discrimination by the US Department of Education, months after basketball players from one of its schools directed antisemitic slurs at their opponents from a Jewish day school.

Yonkers Public Schools has already taken several measures to rectify the January incident, in which a high school basketball player reportedly called a member of the Leffell School, a nearby Jewish day school, a “f–king Jew” while also employing pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

The school fired the team’s coach and disciplined at least one player, and the district together with the mayor of Yonkers issued a public apology calling the comments “abhorrent, inappropriate and not in line with the values we set forth for our young people.”

But in the eyes of the complainant, a screenwriter and conservative activist named Justin Samuels, the incident was still egregious enough to merit federal investigation. He filed a Title VI complaint alleging discrimination.

“High school athletes were targeted for a war thousands of miles away that [they] did not start nor have any control over. That is the definition of racism. There should have been no mention of the war at this game,” Samuels told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email. “I’m happy that OCR agreed that was illegal discrimination and is investigating.”

Samuels is based in New York City but has no connection to either Yonkers or the Leffell School; he is one of a number of outside actors who have filed antisemitism-related Title VI investigations against schools nationwide, based on media reports, since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. This is at least the fourth investigation prompted by one of his complaints since Oct. 7. The Office of Civil Rights has promised to open every Title VI complaint it receives for an investigation, regardless of merit or origin, and does not comment on ongoing investigations.

The Yonkers investigation, opened Monday, appears to be the 80th “shared ancestry” civil rights investigation launched since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel; at least half of those cases involve Israel- or antisemitism-related matters. The department also opened two other new investigations surrounding alleged discrimination around shared ancestry this week, at Eastern Washington University and Seekonk Public Schools in Massachusetts.

The investigation will focus on whether the school responded appropriately to reports of discriminatory behavior, rather than on whether the behavior occurred in the first place. Following the district’s apology and disciplinary measures, it’s unclear what additional steps the office may mandate as a result of the investigation.

A recent Title VI resolution, at a K-12 school district in Delaware, ended with the district agreeing to financially compensate the family of a Jewish victim of antisemitic bullying.

A spokesperson for the Yonkers district told JTA it would cooperate fully with the investigation, adding, “Regardless of the complainant’s affiliation, we take all allegations seriously and aim for transparency and fairness in addressing their concerns.” They added that the district’s previous response to the incident “reflects our dedication to resolving the situation appropriately.”

Representatives for Eastern Washington University and Seekonk Public Schools did not immediately return requests for comment about their investigations.