FAQ About Racial Harassment in Education

Can racial harassment occur in education?

Yes. Harassment of students due to race, color, and national origin is a disturbing phenomenon in elementary and secondary education as well as at colleges. This trend is a major concern because of the profound educational, emotional and physical consequences for the targeted students. Examples of racial harassment include racially motivated physical attacks, racial epithets scrawled on school walls, and organized hate activity directed at students.

What is a racially hostile environment?

A racially hostile environment may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct related to an individual’s race, color, or national origin that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the educational programs or activities.

What are the responsibilities of schools and colleges when it comes to racial harassment?

Under federal law, and as recipients of federal funds, schools and colleges have a responsibility to prevent racial harassment and discrimination in their institutions. Prohibited discrimination occurs when a recipient of federal funds (a school or college) condones, tolerates or allows a racially hostile environment that it knows about or when recipient’s employees treat students differently because of their race.

How does the federal government help eliminate racial harassment against students?

The U.S. Department of Education‘s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on a student’s race, color and national origin in schools and colleges receiving federal funds. OCR investigates and resolves complaints alleging that educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds have failed to protect students from harassment based on race, color or national origin. Complaints are often resolved by agreements requiring schools to adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and to take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.

Discrimination in Public Accommodations

What is a Public Accommodation?

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected groups in businesses and places that are considered “public accommodations.” The definition of a “public accommodation” may vary depending upon the law at issue (i.e. federal or state), and the type of discrimination involved (i.e. race discrimination or disability discrimination). Generally speaking, it may help to think of public accommodations as most (but not all) businesses or buildings that are open to (or offer services to) the general public. More specifically, the definition of a “public accommodation” can be broken down into two types of businesses / facilities:

  • Government-owned/operated facilities, services, and buildings
  • Privately-owned/operated businesses, services, and buildings

Government-owned/operated facilities and services. Government-owned facilities include courthouses, jails, hospitals, parks, and other places owned and operated by federal, state and local government. Government-operated services, programs, or activities provided by federal, state, or local governments include transportation systems and government benefits programs (such as welfare assistance).

Privately-owned/operated businesses and buildings. Privately-owned businesses and facilities that offer certain goods or services to the public — including food, lodging, gasoline, and entertainment — are considered public accommodations for purposes of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. For purposes of disability discrimination, the definition of a “public accommodation” is even more broad, encompassing most businesses that are open to the public (regardless of type).

Laws Prohibiting Discrimination in Public Accommodations: Race, Color, Religion, and National Origin

Federal law prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If you think that you have been discriminated against in using such a facility, you may file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, or with the United States attorney in your area. You may also file suit in the U.S. district court.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, and national origin in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency, your state attorney general’s office, or speak to a Civil Rights attorney in your area.

Laws Prohibiting Discrimination in Public Accommodations and Disability Discrimination

At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a wide range of places of public accommodation, including facilities that offer lodging, food, entertainment, sales or rental services, health care and other professional services, or recreation. State and local governments must eliminate any eligibility criteria for participation in programs, activities, and services that screen out or tend to screen out persons with disabilities, unless the government can establish that the requirements are necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity. In addition, public facilities must ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from services, programs, or activities because buildings are inaccessible.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency, your state attorney general’s office, or speak to a Civil Rights attorney in your area.

Discrimination in Public Accommodations: Government Enforcement

When and Where to File a Complaint — Public Accommodations and Facilities

Federal law prohibits privately owned facilities that offer food, lodging, gasoline or entertainment to the public from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. If you think that you have been discriminated against in using such a facility, you may file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, or with the United States attorney in your area. You may also file suit in the U.S. district court.

In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a wide range of places of public accommodation, including facilities that offer lodging, food, entertainment, sales or rental services, health care and other professional services, or recreation.

There are also state laws that broadly prohibit discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, national origin, and disability in places of public accommodation. To determine whether your state has such a law, you should contact your state or local human rights agency, or your state attorney general’s office.

Public facilities such as courthouses, jails, hospitals, parks, and other facilities owned and operated by state and local government entities cannot discriminate in their services because of race, color, religion, national origin, or disability. If you think a public facility has discriminated against you because of race, color, religion, or national origin, you may file suit in the U.S. district court or file a complaint with the nearest U.S. Attorney’s Office.

People with disabilities cannot be discriminated against or excluded from services, programs, or activities offered by state or local governments. All public transportation systems must be accessible to people with disabilities, regardless of whether the system receives federal financial assistance.

State and local governments must eliminate any eligibility criteria for participation in programs, activities, and services that screen out or tend to screen out persons with disabilities, unless the government can establish that the requirements are necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity. In addition, public facilities must ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded from services, programs, or activities because buildings are inaccessible.

State and local agencies that provide emergency telephone services must provide “direct access” to individuals who rely on telecommunication display devices (TTD’s pr TTY’s) for the deaf, or computer modems for telephone communication. Companies offering telephone services to the general public must offer telephone relay services to individuals who use TTY’s or similar devices.

Intrastate complaints should be filed with that state. Interstate complaints should be filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Discrimination complaints about public facilities (other than Architectural Barriers Act complaints, see below) should be sent to:

  • the federal agency that provides funding to the facility subject to the complaint;
  • the federal agency designated to investigate complaints; or
  • the Department of Justice.

Complaints may always be filed with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which will refer your complaint to the appropriate agency.

Complaints regarding new construction of, or alterations to buildings or facilities funded by the federal government and subject to the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 should be sent to:

Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Office of Compliance and Enforcement
1331 F Street, NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20004-1111
(202) 222-0800
(800) 872-2253
TTY: (202) 272-0082
TTY: (202) 993-2822
Fax: (202) 272-0081

The Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice handles complaints of discrimination based on disability in places of public accommodation, including all hotels, restaurants, retail stores, theaters, health care facilities, convention centers, parks, and places of recreation. To file a complaint of discrimination based on disability, call (800) 514-0301 and send your complaint to:

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
(202) 307-2227
TTY: (800) 514-0383
Fax: (202) 307-1198

If the Disability Rights Section believes that there is a pattern or practice of discrimination, or the complaint raises an issue of general public importance, it may attempt to negotiate a settlement of the matter, or bring an action in U.S. district court. Any such action would be taken on behalf of the United States. You also have the option of filing your own lawsuit in U.S. district court.

ADA Access to Buildings and Businesses (Public Accommodations)

A federal law that requires most business and facilities to provide reasonable access and accommodation for all disabled customers, clients, and members of the public. This law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), applies to almost all businesses that are open to the public, regardless of size. Below is an introduction to the ADA and its application to “public accommodations.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities, such as buying an item at the store, watching a movie in a theater, enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, exercising at the local health club, or having the car serviced at a local garage. To meet the goals of the ADA, the law established requirements for private businesses of all sizes. These requirements first went into effect on January 26, 1992.

In recognition that many small businesses cannot afford to make significant physical changes to their stores or places of business to provide accessibility to wheelchair users and other people with disabilities, the ADA has requirements for existing facilities built before 1993 that are less strict than for ones built after early 1993 or modified after early 1992.

Private Businesses that Serve the Public: “Public Accommodations”

Private businesses that provide goods or services to the public are called “public accommodations” under the ADA. The ADA establishes requirements for twelve categories of public accommodations, including stores and shops, restaurants and bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities, private museums and schools, and others. Nearly all types of private businesses that serve the public are included in the categories, regardless of size. Existing facilities are not exempted by “grandfather provisions” that are often used by building code officials.

New Construction and Alterations

The ADA requires that newly constructed facilities, first occupied on or after January 26, 1993, meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Alterations to facilities, spaces or elements (including renovations) on or after January 26, 1992, also must comply with the Standards. Renovations or modifications are considered to be alterations when they affect the usability of the element or space. For example, installing a new display counter, moving walls in a sales area, replacing fixtures, carpet or flooring, and replacing an entry door. However, simple maintenance, such as repainting a wall is not considered an alteration by the ADA.

Disabled Access to Buildings and Businesses: FAQ

Q: What is a “public accommodation” under the ADA?
A: Private businesses that provide goods or services to the public are called public accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA establishes requirements for twelve categories of public accommodations, including stores and shops, restaurants and bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities, private museums and schools and others. Nearly all types of private businesses that serve the public are included in the categories, regardless of size.

Q: Is a business automatically required to remove “barriers” to access under the ADA?
A: If a business provides goods and services to the public, it is required to remove barriers to access if doing so is readily achievable. Such a business is called a public accommodation because it serves the public. If a business is not open to the public but is only a place of employment like a warehouse, manufacturing facility or office building, then there is no requirement to remove barriers. Such a facility is called a commercial facility.

Q: How do I determine what is “readily achievable” for a business?
A: “Readily achievable” means easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. Determining if barrier removal is readily achievable is, by necessity, a case-by-case judgment. Factors to consider include:

1) The nature and cost of the action;

2) The overall financial resources of the site or sites involved; the number of persons employed at the site; the effect on expenses and resources; legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation, including crime prevention measures; or any other impact of the action on the operation of the site;

3) The geographic separateness, and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the site or sites in question to any parent corporation or entity;

4) If applicable, the overall financial resources of any parent corporation or entity; the overall size of the parent corporation or entity with respect to the number of its employees; the number, type, and location of its facilities; and

5) If applicable, the type of operation or operations of any parent corporation or entity, including the composition, structure, and functions of the workforce of the parent corporation or entity.

Q: If an area of a store is reachable only by a flight of steps, is the owner required to add an elevator?
A: Usually no. A public accommodation generally would not be required to remove a barrier to physical access posed by a flight of steps, if removal would require extensive ramping or an elevator. The readily achievable standard does not require barrier removal that requires burdensome expense. Thus, where it is not readily achievable to do so, the ADA would not require a public accommodation to provide access to an area reachable only by a flight of stairs.

Q: Are restaurants required to have menus in Braille?
A: No, not if waiters or other employees are made available to read the menu to a blind customer.

Q: Is a clothing store required to have price tags in Braille?
A: No, not if sales personnel can provide price information orally upon request.

Q: Do businesses need to rearrange furniture and display racks?
A: Possibly. For example, restaurants may need to rearrange tables and department stores may need to adjust their layout of racks and shelves in order to permit access to wheelchair users.

Q: Do businesses need to install elevators?
A: Businesses are not required to retrofit their facilities to install elevators unless such installation is readily achievable, which is unlikely in most cases.

Q: When barrier removal is not readily achievable, what kinds of alternative steps are required by the ADA?
A: Alternatives may include such measures as in-store assistance for removing articles from inaccessible shelves, home delivery of groceries, or coming to the door to receive or return dry cleaning. Only readily achievable alternative steps must be undertaken.

Civil Rights and Discrimination Laws

Below is a list of federal laws that guarantee civil rights and prohibit discrimination in a number of settings, including links to the full texts of those laws. (Note: Many states have civil rights laws of their own which mirror those at the federal level, so your state may have its own laws that are very similar to those identified below. In addition, municipalities like cities and counties can enact ordinances and laws related to civil rights.)

  • Air Carrier Access Act of 1986
    Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the provision of (including access to) air transportation.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    Protects persons with disabilities from discrimination in many aspects of life, including employment, education, and access to public accommodations.
  • Architectural Barriers Act of 1968
    Requires that buildings and facilities designed, constructed, altered, or leased with certain federal funds after September 1969 must be accessible to and useable by handicapped persons.
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act
    Prohibits creditors from discriminating against credit applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or because an applicant receives income from a public assistance program.
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963
    Requires that employers pay all employees equally for equal work, regardless of whether the employees are male or female.
  • Fair Housing Act
    Prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act
    Gives employees the right to take time off from work in order to care for a newborn (or recently adopted) child, or to look after an ill family member.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
    Ensuring that the rights of students with disabilities are protected, and that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education.
  • National Voter Registration Act
    Establishes procedures to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for national office.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act
    Prohibits employment discrimination against female workers who are (or intend to become) pregnant — including discrimination in hiring, failure to promote, and wrongful termination.
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973
    Protects disabled individuals from discrimination by employers and organizations that receive federal financial assistance.
  • Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
    Protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws; also protects the religious exercise of inmates and other persons confined to certain institutions.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
    Prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds, to increase educational and athletic opportunities for females in schools and colleges nationwide.
  • U.S. Code Title 42, Chapter 21 — Civil Rights
    Title 42, Chapter 21 of the U.S. Code prohibits discrimination against persons based on age, disability, gender, race, national origin, and religion (among other things) in a number of settings — including education, employment, access to businesses and buildings, federal services, and more. Chapter 21 is where a number of federal acts related to civil rights have been codified — including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
  • The U.S. Constitution | Articles | Amendments
    The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, outlines the role and operation of government in the United States. Includes links to all articles and amendments, with annotations.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965
    Prohibits the denial or restriction of the right to vote, and forbids discriminatory voting practices nationwide.

What is Discrimination?

In plain English, to “discriminate” means to distinguish, single out, or make a distinction. In everyday life, when faced with more than one option, we discriminate in arriving at almost every decision we make. But in the context of civil rights law, unlawful discrimination refers to unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain characteristics, including:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • National origin
  • Race,
  • Religion, and
  • Sexual orientation.

Lawful vs. Unlawful Discrimination

Not all types of discrimination will violate federal and/or state laws that prohibit discrimination. Some types of unequal treatment are perfectly legal, and cannot form the basis for a civil rights case alleging discrimination. The examples below illustrate the difference between lawful and unlawful discrimination.

Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to her, because he does not want dogs in his building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on her status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.

Example 2: Applicant 2, an African-American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African-American, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to him, because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.

Where Can Discrimination Occur?

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against members of protected groups (identified above) in a number of settings, including:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Government benefits and services
  • Health care services
  • Land use / zoning
  • Lending and credit
  • Public accommodations (Access to buildings and businesses)
  • Transportation
  • Voting

Anti-Discrimination Laws

Most laws prohibiting discrimination, and many legal definitions of “discriminatory” acts, originated at the federal level through either:

  • Federal legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992. Other federal acts (supplemented by court decisions) prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, extension of credit, public education, and access to public facilities.

OR

  • Federal court decisions, like the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which was the impetus for nationwide racial desegregation of public schools. Other Supreme Court cases have shaped the definition of discriminatory acts like sexual harassment, and the legality of anti-discrimination remedies such as affirmative action programs.

Today, most states have anti-discrimination laws of their own which mirror those at the federal level. For example, in the state of Texas, Title 2 Chapter 21 of the Labor Code prohibits employment discrimination. Many of the mandates in this Texas law are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law making employment discrimination unlawful.

Municipalities within states (such as cities, counties, and towns) can create their own anti-discrimination laws or ordinances, which may or may not resemble the laws of the state itself. For example, a city may pass legislation requiring domestic partner benefits for city employees and their same-sex partners, even though no such law exists at the state level.

Discrimination: Getting a Lawyer’s Help

If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation such as discrimination, the best place to start is to speak with an experienced Discrimination Attorney. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated — including which laws apply to your situation, and who is responsible for the discrimination and any harm you suffered. A Discrimination Attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

Civil Rights in Education: Law and History

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools and public colleges and universities.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But implementation of the Court’s decision went slowly, with massive resistance from the states. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 9 black children who were enrolled in Central High School from attending the school. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. These students were prevented from attending the school until President Eisenhower made the National Guard part of the federal army and also sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect these 9 children. In September 1958, Governor Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock to prevent any more black children from attending white schools. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.

In January 1961, James Meredith, an African-American, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. Officials at the school returned his application. Mr. Meredith took his case to court. On September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, personally blocked Mr. Meredith from registering at the University even after the Supreme Court ruled. Finally, on September 30, 1962, a Sunday, Mr. Meredith was escorted onto the campus by federal marshals and Civil Rights Division lawyers. Stationed on or near the campus to protect him were 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 US Border Patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards. Within an hour, the federal forces were attacked by a mob that would grow to number 2,000 and who fought them with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The marshals had been ordered not to shoot and so used tear gas to try to stop the rioting. The violence continued until President Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus. When it was over, 2 people were dead, 28 marshals had been shot, 160 people were injured, and James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Online College To Pay $260,000 To Settle EEOC Lawsuit Charging Sex Harassment By Supervisors Online College To Pay $260,000 To Settle EEOC Lawsuit Charging Sex Harassment By Supervisors

Anthem College Online Tolerated a Hostile Workplace, Federal Agency Charged

PHOENIX – High-Tech Institute, Inc., doing business as Anthem College Online, will pay $260,000 as part of a settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today. In its suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona (Civil Action No.CV-09-2041-ROS), the EEOC charged that Anthem College subjected female employees to repeated sexual harassment by supervisors.

According to the EEOC, six female admissions representatives working at the Phoenix, Ariz., location were frequently sexually harassed by three supervisors. The EEOC’s allegations included that the supervisors engaged in unwanted sexual touching and comments, writing sexually suggestive e-mails and soliciting sex from employees during unwelcome visits to the employees’ homes in the early morning hours. Some of this abusive behavior was witnessed by other Anthem College employees, the EEOC said.

The EEOC maintained that Anthem College knew or should have known about and tolerated this sexually hostile work environment caused by its supervisors. The agency said the company’s former human resource manager wrote that Anthem College employees were fearful to come forward because an alleged harasser was seen drinking and socializing with upper management and that there was blatant disrespect to employees and rampant poor management.

According to the EEOC, the company unreasonably delayed removing a class member from under the supervision of an alleged harasser who, the company’s own former human resources manager testified, was a “psychopath.” The EEOC argued that despite Anthem College’s knowledge about the harassment, the company failed to take reasonable steps to investigate and remedy the harassment.

“Employees who have an official or strong duty to communicate to management are considered part of management,” said EEOC Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill of the Phoenix District Office, which originated the legal action. “Here, there was a breakdown in reporting by persons whose job descriptions required them to report any issues affecting the normal operation of the admissions department, including sexual harassment. They failed to do so, with serious consequences.”

Sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to the settlement requiring Anthem College to pay $260,000 to the former employees, Anthem College also must investigate any further complaints of sexual harassment, provide training for managers and supervisors on conducting sexual harassment investigations and post a notice that harassment of Anthem College’s employees will not be tolerated.

EEOC Phoenix District Director Rayford O. Irvin added, “We insist that companies fulfill their obligation to protect employees from sexual harassment and provide the necessary training to ensure this protection.”