The letter to the nation’s schools and universities was signed both by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, and his successor, John B. King Jr., left. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The U.S. Education Department is urging the nation’s colleges and K-12 schools to guard against harassment and discrimination based on race, religion or national origin, a response to anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments that appear to be on the rise.

“A focus on these protections, while always essential, is particularly important amid international and domestic events that create an urgent need for safe spaces for students,” reads the Dec. 31 open letter to school leaders, which was signed both by Arne Duncan, who stepped down as U.S. Education Secretary that day, and John B. King Jr., who is now serving as acting secretary.

The letter described the kind of behavior that schools should look out for, from name-calling to physical attacks, and singled out students who are most likely to need protection: “Those who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color.”

The guidance to schools comes after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. fueled a backlash against Muslims and a a vigorous public debate about whether to welcome refugees fleeing violence in Syria. More than two dozen Republican governors have said they don’t want refugees in their states and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for rejecting all Muslim refugees seeking to enter the U.S.

Such public discussion can result in the “dissemination of misinformation” into schools, leading to bullying that “can jeopardize students’ ability to learn, undermine their physical and emotional well-being, provoke retaliatory acts, and exacerbate community conflicts,” federal officials wrote in their letter.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported an increase in reports of bullying and discrimination against Muslim students in the past year. CAIR’s 2014 survey of Muslim youth ages 11-18 in California found that a majority of them — 55 percent — had been bullied at school because of their religion. And not all of the offensive behavior came from other students: One in five Muslim youth, or 20 percent, reported discrimination by a teacher, administrator or other staff member.

Last year, for example, a Florida teacher was suspended for five days without pay after allegedly calling a 14-year-old Muslim student a “raghead Taliban” when he walked into class wearing a hoodie, according to the Miami Herald. And the Justice Department is investigating whether the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who was taken into custody after bringing a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas school, was the result of discrimination. Officials there said they were worried the clock might be a bomb.

The Education Department’s letter to schools highlighted the role that teachers play in creating a welcoming culture: “Because parents and students look to you for leadership, their hearing from you that such conduct is unconditionally wrong and will not be tolerated in our schools will make a real difference,” the letter said.

Read the letter:

Federal officials urge schools to fight discrimination