Discrimination in Education

Federal education laws that prohibit discrimination include Title IX, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, among others. Educational “programs and facilities” that receive any form of federal financial assistance from the federal government are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of a protected characteristic with regard to any of the services or benefits they offer. Programs and facilities to which the federal civil rights laws are applicable include secondary schools, colleges, universities, vocational schools, libraries, museums, and activities that receive funds from the Department of Education.

Protected characteristics under federal education law include race, gender, age, national origin, and disability. Race, color, and national origin discrimination in education, for example, is prohibited by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VI, no person can be excluded from participating in or be subject to discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. Title VI covers almost all public schools, colleges, and universities because almost all of them accept students who use federal financial aid to pay their tuition. However, there are some private colleges that do not receive federal financial assistance, and those schools are not covered by Title VI.

Enforcement of Anti-Discrimination Education Laws

The federal Department of Education has an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that enforces many of the federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in connection with programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The OCR enforces Title VI, Title IX, Section 504, Title II of the ADA, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975. OCR also enforces the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act (BSAEAA), which is a section of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Under BSAEAA, no school providing an opportunity for community groups to meet on school premises can deny equal access or fair opportunity to meet to any youth group listed in Title 36 of the United States Code as a patriotic society.

Often, there are grievance procedures at an institution for handling complaints, investigating, and providing remedies. It can be wise for a person complaining of discrimination to use the grievance procedure either before or alongside filing with the OCR, although this is not legally required. If you do use an institutional grievance procedure, you must file your OCR complaint within 60 days of the last act of the institutional grievance procedure.

Filing a Complaint With OCR

If you want to file a formal complaint with the OCR, you can submit information related to your complaint to an OCR enforcement office. There are 12 of these offices across the nation, and the OCR is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The information should include your name and address, a general description of the discriminatory act and those injured (the specific names of victims is not required), the name and location of the entity that discriminated, and a specific description of the discrimination that allows the OCR to understand the basis for the discrimination, including what happened and when.

The person or organization complaining about discrimination does not need to be the actual victim of the discrimination to file a complaint. You only have 180 calendar days from the date of the discrimination unless the OCR extends the filing date for good cause.

Outcome of OCR Investigation

Retaliation is prohibited under federal civil rights laws. The recipient of federal financial assistance is not permitted to retaliate in any fashion against someone who has complained of unlawful conduct or participated in any way in an investigation or proceeding under the federal civil rights laws.

If the OCR’s investigation shows there was discrimination, the OCR first tries to obtain voluntary compliance from the recipient of the federal financial assistance. If voluntary compliance cannot be obtained, the OCR can initiate an enforcement action by initiating proceedings before an administrative law judge to terminate federal funding to the recipient’s program or activity in which the discrimination happened, or by referring the matter to the Department of Justice for court proceedings.

In some cases, an individual may also have a private right of action. For example, a victim of intentional sex discrimination may be able to sue in civil court under Title IX for monetary damages.