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Discrimination in Education - Federal Laws

Discrimination in education occurs when there is unfair treatment of individuals based on characteristics protected by law. This is a civil rights violation. These protected characteristics include:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion

Teachers, administrators, or other students can perpetrate discriminatory action. Examples include harsher treatment of minority students compared to their non-minority counterparts on punishments like:

  • Suspension
  • Unfair grading policies
  • The allowance of discriminatory behavior perpetrated by other students in the classroom

The federal government has enacted statutory protections to prevent discrimination in education. Besides federal laws, states have their own nondiscrimination state laws that supplement federal protections, such as the CROWN Act. Also, schools often have coordinators responsible for addressing discrimination complaints to ensure compliance with these education laws. 

Several federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. These laws apply to both private and public schools receiving federal funding. Federal agencies enforce these civil rights laws. These agencies are the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice. The OCR aims to uphold civil rights and enforce equal educational opportunities for all. 

OCR provides guidance and enforces laws by:

  • Investigating complaints
  • Conducting compliance reviews
  • Offering technical help to schools from K-12 and higher education

Key federal laws addressing discrimination in education include:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act

There are various Title VI violations. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education reports that African-American students receive suspensions and face expulsions at a rate three times greater than white students. In contrast, students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers. Title VI private schools can receive fines for not accepting minority students into their programs.


Under Title VI, a recipient may not retaliate against any person because they opposed an unlawful educational practice or policy or made changes, testified, or participated in any complaint under Title VI. If this does occur, it is a violation of Title VI.

Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972

Under Title IX, schools, universities, and colleges must provide equal opportunities for both genders in all aspects of education, including:

  • Athletics
  • Course offerings
  • Student health insurance benefits
  • Employment
  • Financial Aid

Other Title IX violations include pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Institutions that fail to follow Title IX risk losing federal funding.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Under Section 504, educational institutions must make reasonable accommodations to help disabled students perform at acceptable levels. The goal is that disabled students have equal access to those without disabilities.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under Title II, disabled students must have access to all:

  • Educational benefits
  • Educational services
  • Educational programs

Also, failure to construct new buildings and update older buildings to ensure access is a violation of the ADA.

Age Discrimination Act

The Age Discrimination Act protects students of all ages in educational opportunities unless the program has a valid reason for restricting students due to their age.

Applicable Programs and Facilities

These civil rights laws extend to all education programs and facilities that receive federal financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education, including:

  • State education agencies
  • Elementary and secondary school systems
  • Colleges and universities
  • Vocational schools
  • Proprietary schools
  • State vocational rehabilitation agencies
  • Libraries
  • Museums

Programs or activities that receive ED funds must provide aid, benefits, or services in a nondiscriminatory manner. Such aids, benefits, or services may include, but are not limited to:

  • Admissions
  • Recruitment
  • Financial aid
  • Academic programs
  • Student treatment and services
  • Counseling and guidance
  • Discipline
  • Classroom assignment
  • Grading
  • Vocational education
  • Recreation
  • Physical education
  • Athletics
  • Housing
  • Employment

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act outlines the rights of children with disabilities to receive special education and related services in U.S. public schools. Under IDEA, students with disabilities must have an individualized education program developed for them.

Get Legal Help From an Attorney

If you think you or your child has experienced discrimination in education, you can get help from an attorney specializing in discrimination matters.

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