NY Court Says Human Rights Law Doesn't Cover Public School Students

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June 12, 2012

New York State's highest court ruled today that the state's Human Rights Law does not protect students against harassment and discrimination in public schools.

Nearly 90 percent of all New York students attend public schools. As a result of today's ruling by the state Court of Appeals, these students are now denied access to the law's comprehensive protections.

Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney Tom Ude says:

The protections provided by the Human Rights Law should apply to—and are needed by—100 percent of New York's students. We urge the legislature to amend it to protect students in public schools against discrimination and harassment. The Human Rights Law is far more specific and explicitly inclusive than other antidiscrimination laws, and provides remedies and procedures that other laws do not. Without it, New York public school students who are harassed or discriminated against, including LGBT youth, lack adequate state law protection.

The court's decision addressed two appeals that raised this issue. The first, Ithaca City School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights, arose from a case in which an African American girl alleged relentless harassment by a group of white students while riding the public school bus. Her mother said she reported the incidents but was given little help. She claimed that the district failed to protect her daughter from racial harassment. The Division of Human Rights awarded damages to the child and her mother, but the school district challenged that finding.

The other appeal, North Syracuse Central School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights, arose from that school district's challenge to the Division's ability to investigate and hear a mother's complaint that the school district permitted students to racially harass her daughter. Both school districts argued that the Human Rights Law provision protecting students against discrimination and harassment does not apply to public schools at all.

Last March, Lambda Legal and 11 other civil rights organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief stressing the importance of the Human Rights Law's protections to public school students.

In her dissenting opinion today, Judge Carmen Ciparick wrote:

It is antithetical to the purpose of the Human Rights Law to exempt public schools from its mandate... Discrimination is "all the more invidious" when practiced by state run entities. The clear and expressed intent of the Human Rights Law is to protect "every individual" in the State from the evils of discrimination.

Joining Lambda Legal on the brief were: Advocates for Children of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Disability Advocates, Empire State Pride Agenda, GLSEN, the Ithaca Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Task Force, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, the NYCLU and PFLAG.

To learn what you can do to make schools safer for all students, check out Lambda Legal's Out, Safe and Respected for students and for parents and educators.