Title VI Obligations

School districts have an obligation under Title VI not to discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. They cannot intentionally discriminate – that is, for example, treat African-American students differently than white students on the basis of race – or engage in practices that have a disparate impact on students of a certain race without having a substantial legitimate justification necessary to its educational mission.

In addition, school districts also have an obligation to address student-on-student harassment or discrimination.  Specifically, they must prevent or address any peer-to-peer racial harassment that is sufficiently serious as to create a hostile environment, or, in other words, harassment that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from school. A district can be liable for intentional discrimination under Title VI when it is deliberately indifferent to such peer-to-peer harassment.

Office for Civil Rights

 The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has the authority to investigate claims of racial discrimination and harassment under Title VI, but it is not necessary for students to go through OCR prior to filing a lawsuit. As of August 30, 2019, OCR had more than 1,400 open Title VI investigations – 285 of these were related to alleged racial harassment

Unlike with OCR investigations, there is no central database compiling all the lawsuits filed in courts throughout the country alleging Title VI violations by school districts, but in recent years, there appears to be a trend of some students foregoing OCR complaints and filing claims of race-based harassment and bullying directly in federal court. We discuss one current example below.

T.B. et al. v. Independent School District 112

 In September, six current and former African-American students of a suburban Minnesota school district and their parents filed a nearly 50-page federal lawsuit against the District, alleging pervasive race discrimination. African-American students make up only 3.3% of the student population in the District, and there are very few district staff who are African-American, including no teachers and, until recently, no administrators. Plaintiffs are requesting both injunctive relief – meaning, that the court or jury find that the District violated the law and require the District to come into compliance – and monetary damages.

 The complaint alleges that white students in the District wore blackface on multiple occasions, including once at a high school football game and another time in a photograph that was later printed in the yearbook. The students also allege they were subject to physical assaults, verbal slurs, and a death threat from other students on the basis of their race. Furthermore, the students state that the District treated them differently than white students – including, but not limited to, by disciplining African-American students at higher rates than their white peers. The students allege that four of them left the District due to “rampant racism” and the District’s purported failure to address this racism.

The lawsuit arises under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The students purport that the alleged harassment, discrimination, and disparate treatment on the basis of race has deprived them of equal access to the educational environment. Specifically, the District has been accused of failing to appropriately investigate and respond to reports of harassment and discrimination, failing to enforce its anti-discrimination policies, and failing to train staff on recognizing, addressing and preventing discrimination and harassment.  The complaint includes some description of steps the District has taken, or has stated it intends to take, in response to various incidents, but the students’ position is that no “meaningful action” has been taken to combat the racism, discrimination, and harassment.

In its Answer, Independent School District 112 denied any violation of Title VI, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, or the Constitution. The District alleged that it annually trains staff on responding to discrimination, harassment and violence, alleged that it has taken action to address more than half of the issues presented in an April 2019 petition from a community group (“Residents Organizing Against Racism”), and denied that there was any systemic racism in the District. The District also raises affirmative defenses in its answer, including but not limited to requesting that the students’ claims should be severed from each other and stating that all actions the District took with respect to the students were supported by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

The T.B. v. ISD 112 case is currently ongoing, and the parties were ordered to meet for a settlement conference late last week. Most federal litigation is resolved prior to trial, whether at the summary judgment stage (where the judge determines the merits of the case, or the merits of discrete issues in the case, based on a lack of genuine dispute about the material facts in the case) or through settlement. However, some cases – including some Title VI cases involving peer-on-peer harassment or bullying – are resolved through jury trials. In 2012, for example, a federal court of appeals upheld the one million dollar judgment awarded to a New York student for a school district’s deliberate indifference to racial harassment that included slurs, threats, and physical attacks.

What this Means for You

When a school district knows – or reasonably should know – that racial harassment is occurring, it should take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate and respond to the harassment. The district’s action must be reasonably calculated to remedy the hostile environment and prevent the harassment from reoccurring. While these steps are important after an allegation of harassment is raised, it is equally important to maintain and enforce policies and procedures that communicate to your school’s community the importance of reporting and not tolerating any type of harassment, including race-based bullying. Ensuring that school personnel are trained in how to identify and report harassment and how to properly investigate and mitigate its effects is crucial to maintaining a safe environment for all students.