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Understanding Civil Rights Laws: Education Discrimination

Several federal laws prohibit discrimination in providing educational opportunities and services. A person or group may experience discrimination based on:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation

The following is an overview of some laws that seek to eradicate this form of discrimination.

Equal Access Enforcement by the U.S. Department of Education

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education enforces all the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, age, race, color, national origin, and disability. The self-stated mission of the OCR is "ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence throughout the nation."

OCR receives complaints from students, parents, and faculty. Also, OCR performs compliance reviews to ensure that all students receive fair treatment. For example, OCR may conduct a compliance review by tracking the demographics of students in special education courses to determine whether an inappropriate number of ESL students are on the attendance rolls for those courses.

To help dissuade future acts of discrimination, OCR also sponsors or holds a wide variety of workshops, refresher courses, and other educational seminars on education discrimination.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

This portion of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Complaints received by OCR may involve:

  • Ability grouping
  • Disciplinary practices invoked by schools
  • The prevalence or acceptance of inter-district student transfers
  • School desegregation
  • Housing concerns
  • Racial harassment

According to the Department of Education, Title VI has a positive effect. In 1976, the dropout rate of African American students ages sixteen to twenty-four was 20.5%. In 2015, that number had declined to 6.5%.

A study revealed that since 1990, the number of Latino students enrolled in higher education facilities has increased by 47%. African-American student enrollment increased by 20%. The number of American Indian enrollment increased by 30%.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

This federal law prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Violations of this law may include:

  • The treatment of pregnant students
  • Equal opportunity to take part in athletic programs
  • Sexual harassment

Title IX appears to have a positive effect on eradicating sex discrimination in education:

  • According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, females participating in high school sports programs increased from 294,000 students in 1971 to over 2.4 million in the 1996-97 school year.
  • The Census Bureau has reported that when Title IX was enacted in 1972, 9% of the professional degrees awarded in medicine were awarded to women. In 1996, 41% of the medical degree recipients were women.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's disability in providing educational services and opportunities in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act

This far-reaching federal law prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including:

  • Public school districts
  • Public colleges and universities
  • Public vocational schools
  • Public libraries

Complaints handled by OCR involving either or both Section 504 and Title II may include but are not limited to, issues such as the appropriate screening for and provision of special education services, the accessibility of school facilities, the availability of auxiliary aids for impaired students and the inter-school discipline of students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IDEA seeks free public education for every child with special education needs. IDEA requires an individualized educational plan to be developed for each child who has a disability. Developing the plan is a joint effort between the government, educators, and the parents of the disabled child. Enacted in 1975, IDEA underwent many amendments and changes in 1997. IDEA is enforced by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education.

It appears as though the passage of Section 504 and Title II for students with disabilities and the passage of IDEA for students needing special education have had a positive impact on the access of disabled individuals to educational opportunities. 

In a report to Congress in 1997 on the implementation and success of IDEA, it was noted that in 1984, only one-fourth of students with disabilities were served in regular classrooms for at least 80% of the school day. In 1994-95, 45% of students with disabilities were being served in regular education classes.

Since the enactment of IDEA in 1975, 90% fewer developmentally disabled children are living in institutions.

Age Discrimination Act of 1975

This federal Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

Unlike some other age discrimination laws, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which only protects workers over the age of forty, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 protects students of all age groups from discrimination based on their age. If there is a valid reason for requiring students to be of a particular age, an educational institution may be absolved from complying with the Act.

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 has also had a positive effect in creating a more diversified student population. In 1996, there were more than three and one-half times as many college students aged thirty-five and over as there were in 1972, according to the Census Bureau. In 1972, there were 783,000 students enrolled in higher education in this age category. In 1996, that number rose to 2,778,000.

According to the OCR, older students have better grades than younger students. In 1995-96, 30% of undergraduate students aged forty and above received A's in their courses. Only about 7% of students aged twenty-three and below could claim similar success.

Speak to an Attorney Today

Did a school violate your rights or the rights of your child? Discrimination in education is a serious offense, but some laws prohibit this behavior. Discover how these laws can protect you by discussing them with an attorney. You can check out FindLaw's attorney directory today.

Visit Find Law's Education Law page for more information.

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