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Bias in Education: Navigating Student Discrimination Claims in Arizona

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How to deal with discrimination within the higher education system

Students who attend elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, and proprietary schools that receive federal funding have federally protected rights against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that employers may not discriminate against an employee based upon their LGBTQ status, but this protection has not yet explicitly been extended to students.

As just a few examples, federal law protects students from discrimination in the context of admissions, financial aid, academic programs, access to educational resources, student services, athletics, counseling and guidance, discipline, classroom assignments, and grading. Students who are subjected to discrimination often feel isolated. However, there are steps they can take to protect their rights.

1. Research Internal Grievance Procedures

All academic institutions should have specific policies outlining the steps students should take to report discriminatory conduct. Students experiencing discrimination should research those policies to determine the proper forum for reporting it. Once a student reports discrimination, the school should investigate the claim and take any remedial measures that are necessary. Often times, the school will resolve the issue to the student's satisfaction and no further action is necessary. However, that is not always the case.

2. File a Complaint with the Department of Education

The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (commonly referred to as "the OCR") enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Students who opt to file complaints with the OCR must do so within 180 days of the last act of discrimination or show good cause for they did not file the complaint within 180 days.

The OCR investigates complaints, works with students and schools to reach amicable resolutions, and issues findings with respect to students' complaints. In some instances, the OCR may require a school to implement new anti-discrimination policies or take other actions to remedy discriminatory conduct.

Conversely, the Arizona Department of Education has jurisdiction over complaints in areas typically of statewide concern, including complaints regarding access to special education and ESL courses in schools created under the Arizona Charter School Program.

3. Consult with an Attorney

Alternatively, students looking for a more expedient solution and a thorough understanding of their options should consult with an experienced education attorney before, or in lieu of, filing a complaint with the OCR. For most discrimination claims, students are not required to file complaints with the OCR before filing suit. However, students cannot file suit for age discrimination under federal law without first filing a complaint with the OCR. Consulting with an attorney will help students understand the nuances of their potential claims under state and federal law. Often times, students discover they have claims that they otherwise may not have pursued had they not first met with an attorney to discuss their concerns.


About the Author: Alden Thomas is a partner at Jaburg Wilk who primarily practices in the areas of education and employment law. She assists students with discrimination claims and responding to alleged honor code violations, including plagiarism. She also assists students with petitions to change their residency classifications and appeals of denied petitions.