June 18, 2012
New York public school students have fewer options for recourse against discrimination today than they did a week ago.
The state’s highest court ruled last week that public school students cannot use New York’s human rights law to seek recognition of discrimination — or get financial compensation when discrimination has taken place.
Never before have courts ruled that such a large group of constituents is not protected by the law, said Rebecca Shore, the director of litigation for Advocates for Children, which aims to protect low-income students from discrimination.
New York’s human rights law, the first of its kind when it was passed in 1945, prohibits discrimination based on “age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex or marital status” in a variety of settings, including “non-sectarian educational institutions,” according to the State Division of Human Rights. Individuals can file complaints with the state’s Division of Human Rights and seek restitution, all without paying for a lawyer.
But after two school districts contested the human rights division’s jurisdiction to investigate and fine them, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in a 4-3 decision that the division cannot probe discrimination claims in public schools.
The human rights law explicitly says that “an education corporation or association” falls under the Division of Human Rights’ jurisdiction. But the law does not define the term, so the court turned to other New York statutes for guidance. It found other laws that defined public school districts as “public corporations” — making them therefore not “education corporations” and thus not subject to the human rights law. Students who attend private, non-parochial schools can still seek recourse under the law.
The decision reversed verdicts at midlevel courts concerning cases against the Ithaca and North Syracuse school districts. In both cases, the State Division of Human Rights had stepped in when middle school students complained about taunts from their classmates, including racial slurs like “gorilla” and “fat black b—,” according to court documents. In one case, the human rights division found the school district in violation of the human rights law because it had not tried to prevent the harassment, and had instead argued the insults were not about race, but hygiene. The districts in turn maintained that the division did not have the right to investigate them in the first place.
The ruling does not mean that public school students who feel discriminated against have no options, said Melissa Goodman, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. New York City students can still seek redress based on a chancellor’s regulation with similar language as the human rights law. Because of that regulation, students in the city turned to the human rights law less frequently than in other parts of the state, Goodman said.
Students across the state can file complaints to the state education commissioner. And next month, the state will start to implement the Dignity for All Students Act, which aims to prevent discrimination and harassment and requires schools to collect and report data about such incidents. But none of these avenues allows students to recieve financial compensation when they suffer discrimination.
Plus, because the Dignity for All Students Act is so new, no one is exactly sure how it will work, Goodman said.
“Going through the division of human rights was clear, time tested, and worked for many parents,” she said.
The Court of Appeals ruling on is below: