Discrimination sucks. It’s mean and it’s cruel. Luckily, students have the right to attend public schools that promote an environment of non-discrimination.
Thanks to the U.S. Constitution and a combination of federal and state laws, you generally get to be who you want to be and love who you want to love at school (and during school activities). Let’s talk about the different types of discrimination prohibited at school.
Equal Protection for Students
Public schools are educational institutions that are extensions of the government. Therefore, schools are required to provide all students with equal access to public education under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
In the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that schools have to give equal educational opportunities to all students and cannot discriminate on the basis of race. That means no matter your race, your public school can’t keep you out or treat you differently from other students.
Over the years, the creation of several federal civil rights laws has provided students with even more protection against other types of discrimination. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for schools that receive federal funding (that means almost every public school) to discriminate against students based on race AND skin color or national origin. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal financial assistance.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has proposed new rules under Title IX that include discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity as forms of prohibited “sex discrimination.” These rules would make it easier for nonbinary or transgender students to use their chosen pronouns and use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
Twenty states are refusing to comply, arguing that the new federal rules interfere with their ability to enforce their own state laws. For example, some of these states have laws preventing transgender students from using a restroom or joining a school sports team that matches their gender expression.
A federal judge also issued a court order that prevents the federal government from being able to enforce its new Title IX regulations and protect LGBTQ+ students in these states. However, once the Department of Education’s new regulations are enacted, they will preempt conflicting state laws that fail to protect students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is likely that a showdown in the federal courts could occur between the federal government and these states.
Other Prohibited Discrimination
Students are also protected from discrimination based on religion. The Equal Access Act of 1984 prohibits educational institutions from receiving federal funds if they prevent students from practicing their First Amendment right to meet because of religious interests. This means students have the right to voluntarily exercise their religious beliefs, such as by praying or leading fellow students in prayer, as long as they don’t interfere with the educational process or disrupt school.
Schools also cannot engage in disability discrimination against students. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) applies to state and local governments and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including students attending public schools. Under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a disability can be anything that physically or mentally impairs a student from participating in life activities.
Remember, private school students don’t have the same rights as students attending public schools. If you or someone you know has encountered discrimination at school, you can start the complaint process by contacting the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). You can also contact your local school district for more information.
Be yourself. Especially at school.
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