student rights

Court rules NY human rights law doesn't cover public schools

New York public school students have fewer options for recourse against discrimination today than they did a week ago.

The state’s highest court ruled last week that public school students cannot use New York’s human rights law to seek recognition of discrimination — or get financial compensation when discrimination has taken place.

Never before have courts ruled that such a large group of constituents is not protected by the law, said Rebecca Shore, the director of litigation for Advocates for Children, which aims to protect low-income students from discrimination.

New York’s human rights law, the first of its kind when it was passed in 1945, prohibits discrimination based on “age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex or marital status” in a variety of settings, including “non-sectarian educational institutions,” according to the State Division of Human Rights. Individuals can file complaints with the state’s Division of Human Rights and seek restitution, all without paying for a lawyer.

But after two school districts contested the human rights division’s jurisdiction to investigate and fine them, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in a 4-3 decision that the division cannot probe discrimination claims in public schools.

The human rights law explicitly says that “an education corporation or association” falls under the Division of Human Rights’ jurisdiction. But the law does not define the term, so the court turned to other New York statutes for guidance. It found other laws that defined public school districts as “public corporations” — making them therefore not “education corporations” and thus not subject to the human rights law. Students who attend private, non-parochial schools can still seek recourse under the law.

The decision reversed verdicts at midlevel courts concerning cases against the Ithaca and North Syracuse school districts. In both cases, the State Division of Human Rights had stepped in when middle school students complained about taunts from their classmates, including  racial slurs like “gorilla” and “fat black b—,” according to court documents. In one case, the human rights division found the school district in violation of the human rights law because it had not tried to prevent the harassment, and had instead argued the insults were not about race, but hygiene. The districts in turn maintained that the division did not have the right to investigate them in the first place.

The ruling does not mean that public school students who feel discriminated against have no options, said Melissa Goodman, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. New York City students can still seek redress based on a chancellor’s regulation with similar language as the human rights law. Because of that regulation, students in the city turned to the human rights law less frequently than in other parts of the state, Goodman said.

Students across the state can file complaints to the state education commissioner. And next month, the state will start to implement the Dignity for All Students Act, which aims to prevent discrimination and harassment and requires schools to collect and report data about such incidents. But none of these avenues allows students to recieve financial compensation when they suffer discrimination.

Plus, because the Dignity for All Students Act is so new, no one is exactly sure how it will work, Goodman said.

“Going through the division of human rights was clear, time tested, and worked for many parents,” she said.

The Court of Appeals ruling on is below:

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede