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.

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.