Can You Sue a Private School for Discrimination?

While private schools are not exempted from all anti-discrimination laws, they don’t have to follow all of the same laws that a public school does. However, you can sue a private school for discrimination in some situations. 

The three primary factors that will determine whether you can sue for discrimination include:

  • If the school receives any sort of public funding
  • If the school is religious
  • What type of discrimination occurred

While these cases can be tricky to navigate, there are actions you can take if you believe your child has endured discrimination at their private school. This first step is to speak to an attorney about whether the type of discrimination is actionable against your child’s private school.

Can private schools discriminate on the basis of religion?

Yes, religious private schools can discriminate on the basis of religion. This means that students who practice a different faith can be refused admission to a religious-based school and can be excluded from classes or expelled for violating the school’s faith-based code of conduct. 

While public schools cannot deny admission to students on the basis of their religion or require students to study and follow the principles of a particular religion, religious private schools have more freedom in this area. While some private schools are “nonsectarian,” which means they are run by non-religious owners, others are known as “sectarian” schools, which means they are run by religious organizations. 

While nonsectarian schools cannot discriminate based on religion, sectarian private schools can refuse admission to students from a different religious background than the school’s affiliation. They can also require admitted students to observe a religious code of conduct, regardless of the student’s actual faith beliefs.

Can private schools reject students?

Yes, private schools can always reject students for non-discriminatory reasons. Private schools may also be able to reject students for discriminatory reasons such as religion, race, or sex in certain situations. 

Discrimination Based on Race

Because many private schools participate in federal financial assistance programs, such as school breakfast and lunch programs, financial assistance for low-income students, and federal grants, they are subject to federal anti-discrimination laws regarding any programs or activities that receive federal funds. This means that private schools that accept federal funds must adhere to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. 

Even if a school does not receive federal funding, another civil rights law, known as Section 1981, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in making and enforcing contracts. This law forbids all private, nonsectarian schools from refusing admission to students because of their race. 

There are exceptions for sectarian schools that exclude students of a particular race for religious reasons, which means that a religious private school may be able to discriminate on the basis of race if there is a faith-based justification. However, no private school can qualify as a tax-exempt organization if it discriminates based on race in its admission standards. So while it might be legal for some religious schools to discriminate based on race, they will lose their tax-exempt status if they do.

Discrimination Based on Sex

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and school activities, so any school that receives federal funding cannot discriminate based on sex. However, exceptions exist for religious and single-gender schools, and any school that does not receive federal funding is not subject to this anti-discrimination law.

Discrimination Based on Disability

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, schools are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability. This means that private schools that receive federal funds must ensure that students with disabilities are provided an appropriate education, which includes reasonable accommodations to meet the student’s disability-related needs. 

A private school that receives federal funds also cannot refuse admission to a qualified student with disabilities or charge them more tuition if only minor adjustments are required. However, it’s essential to keep in mind that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires students with disabilities to receive Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and guarantees other rights, only applies to public schools.

Read More

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What Did the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Do?

About & RMO Lawyers

RMO LLP serves clients in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Orange County, and communities throughout California. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates.