Civil Rights

Discrimination Lives on at Schools

  • The US Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of US public schools nearly 60 years ago
  • Discrimination hasn't been eliminated from our schools
  • Virginia's public colleges and universities recently were told to stop enforcing their sexual orientation anti-discrimination policies
  • The federal government is preparing a new effort to enforce civil rights in schools across the nation
  • Know how to get involved and make a difference in your schools and community

It's been nearly 60 years since the US Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of US public schools. Can you believe we're still talking about discrimination in our schools - from elementary schools to colleges and universities?

Some of the details have changed over the years, but not many.


Back in the 1950's when desegregation was the buzz word for discrimination, there wasn't much talk about "sexual orientation." Of course, that doesn't mean gays, lesbians, and bisexuals weren't living, working, and attending schools in our communities. Discrimination based upon a person's sexual orientation is a relatively new phenomenon, though.

And everyone from to businesses to high schools are struggling with it.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, Virginia's Attorney General, recently took a novel approach to the issue. He sent a letter to the state's universities and colleges advising them to stop enforcing their rules and policies against sexual orientation discrimination.

Why? In the original letter - and in a second op-ed piece explaining that letter - Cuccinelli explained his legal opinion that only Virginia's General Assembly had the power to place sexual orientation under the umbrella of the state's anti-discrimination law.

And he and others correctly point out that the General Assembly has had the chance but refused to do just that. It's also correctly noted that the state's colleges and universities have broad authority to write their own rules and govern themselves.

Cuccinelli didn't suggest colleges and universities should start discriminating, and it seems unlikely they would now start refusing to hire instructors or start denying admission to students based upon their sexual orientation. Of course, if something like that does happen, you can bet there'll be a lawsuit, and it will fall to the courts and the General Assembly to settle the matter.

The "Old" Foe Lives

If sexual orientation is the "new kid on the block," racial discrimination is the old man the Supreme Court tried to vanquish nearly 60 ago. It's been a tough battle, and it rages on.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or "Stimulus Package," President Obama created the "Race to the Top" program. Armed with over $4 billion, the program is designed to encourage states to improve and reform their public schools. Schools and states that do well get extra funding.

That's the upside. The program also looks to penalize states and schools that don't protect students' civil rights, and specifically the equal treatment of white and black students. This means equal treatment in everything from instruction to discipline. Some of the same things talked about 60 years ago.

Schools with poor performance may face penalties such as reduction or even the complete loss of federal funding. In today's economy, that would be disastrous for practically any public school across the nation.

To some, the "civil rights" aspect of the program is a new and unexpected focus of the program. However, back in 2009 when it was unveiled, President Obama made clear that equality was the program's goal.

It's a grand goal, too. Let's hope it doesn't take another 60 years to achieve it.

What You Can Do

The best thing to do is speak up. Many states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation when it comes to jobs, but very few extend the protection to other areas, such as schools. If you're in a state in like Virginia and your state laws don't address sexual orientation discrimination at all, or you don't think the laws go far enough, contact your state lawmakers and ask for changes in the law.

Likewise, if you see or hear about discrimination in your local schools, contact the school officials and discuss the problems. If your school needs financial help, ask how the school is competing for funds under the Race to the Top program and what progress has been made.

Discrimination in any form is ugly enough, but the last place it needs to be is in our schools. It can live there forever, where there are always new batches of young minds to infect. It's been a fight for 60 years. The fight's not over, and we can't give in.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can parents and students convince a school district to do more under the Race to the Top program?
  • What kind of proof do I need to show a school discriminated against me because of my sexual orientation? Can I do anything about it anyway?
  • Can a school district sue the federal government if it thinks it's federal funding has been reduced unjustly?
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