Can You File a Discrimination Lawsuit Against a School?

Tylene Welch
Children in school are raising their hands. A teacher stands at the whiteboard. One child has both hands raised in the air.

Multiple laws work to protect individuals against discrimination in educational opportunities and services on the basis of race, gender, age, and national origin among other categories. Federal laws include:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
  • The Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Act
  • Among others including state laws

How many laws do we need before we can stop discrimination in schools? Unfortunately, laws may never be enough. Sometimes we have to take action against misconduct. If you’ve been the victim of education discrimination, or you’re the parent or caregiver of a victim, it’s time to consider a discrimination lawsuit.

How do you sue a school? Can you? What about private schools? And what does it take to file a discrimination lawsuit against a school? First, let’s cover examples of discrimination in education and then discuss how you can pursue a discrimination lawsuit.

Table of Contents

Examples of Discrimination in Education

Disability Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act both work to prohibit discrimination against students because of their disabilities. Not only do these laws protect individuals from discrimination, they state that schools that receive federal funding must also provide accomodations or services to help ensure students with special needs receive an appropriate education. These required services might include: classroom aids, speech or occupational therapy, and individual health plans. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) also requires special accommodations for students with disabilities.

Gender Discrimination

Laws against gender discrimination, commonly referred to as sex discrimination, protect individuals from discrimination based on their gender. However, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 fails to mention whether or not it protects LGBTQ students.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) interpreted Title IX as such for many years. In a 2016 policy statement, it was established that a school’s treatment of transgender students should be consistent with their gender identity. However, in early 2017, the Trump administration withdrew this policy statement.

At this time, while gender discrimination is against the law, it is unclear whether or not discrimination based on gender identity is illegal. However, several states have enacted their own laws to prohibit discrimination in schools based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Additionally, some school districts have also enacted anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect gay and transgender students.


Is harassment the same as discrimination? Not necessarily, but when harassment is based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, race, or national origin—it is considered discrimination according to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Schools are responsible for stopping harassment whether it came from a school employee or another student. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to most private schools.

Racial Discrimination

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against discrimination based on their race, color, or national origin in any program that receives federal funding, such as a public school. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) supports Title VI by enforcing additional protection to individuals from discrimination based on their race, color, or national origin.

Other Forms of Discrimination

Other forms of discrimination, such as religious discrimination, might not be specifically addressed in federal laws. However, acts of religious discrimination and harassment can apply to federal laws. For example, harassing a Muslim student would be illegal according to Title VI, which prohibits acts of discrimination based on national origin. Likewise, all students hold the constitutional right to free expression of their religion.

Filing a Discrimination Lawsuit

If you’ve experienced discrimination in the form of any of the above examples, you may have grounds to file a discrimination lawsuit or a complaint with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Here’s what you need to know:

Public vs. Private Schools

In general, the federal laws listed at the beginning of this article only apply to schools that receive federal funding, or public schools. Private schools do not receive federal funding and are therefore exempt from most federal discrimination laws.

Private schools must still follow some anti-discrimination laws, however some jurisdictions have mixed opinions regarding sexual orientation. The state in which the private school is located could determine what exceptions are applied to the school. If you experienced or witnessed discrimination from a private school, it is probably best to consult an attorney regarding your options.

Institutional Grievance Procedures

Your school might have an institutional grievance procedure that they’ll want to enact before taking the claims to court. In some cases, the institutional grievance procedure may resolve the issue. You should find out if your school has one, although you are not required to use it. If you do follow the institutional grievance procedure, but still want to file a complaint with OCR, you’ll need to file the complaint within 60 days after the last step of the grievance process.

File a Complaint with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) handles enforcement of federal laws regarding discrimination in programs funded by the Department of Education. When you’re ready to formally escalate the issue, you’ll file a written complaint with the OCR first. You can retrieve a complaint form and contact information on the U.S. Department of Education OCR site. The formal complaint will need to contain:

  • Your name and address (phone number is optional)
  • A general description of the person, or group, that was discriminated against (names are not required)
  • Name and location of the school that committed the alleged discrimination
  • A detailed description of the alleged discriminatory act(s).

You may file your complaint through email, fax, or online. You do not have to be the person who was discriminated against to file a complaint with the OCR. However, the complaint must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. If you’ve already missed this deadline, contact your local OCR office to ask about your options. After your complaint is filed, the OCR will conduct an investigation into the allegations.

Pursuing a Discrimination Lawsuit

If the investigation proves unsuccessful, you can pursue further action by filing a discrimination lawsuit. Or if your discrimination case involves a private school that doesn’t receive federal funding, you can go straight into the process of a discrimination lawsuit.

Keep in mind that when suing a public or a private school, you will need to prove that the school was aware of the discrimination but did nothing to prevent it. If a discrimination lawsuit is your planned course of action, you’ll want to contact a government lawyer who can help determine if you have a viable case, assist in the filing process, and provide legal representation.

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