After years of discussion, the Court of Appeals on June 12 decided New York’s public school students cannot seek redress under the New York Human Rights Law (HRL) for school-based discrimination and harassment (NYLJ, June 13). The four-vote majority interpreted § 296(4) of the Executive Law—after reviewing the convoluted layering and sequencing of provisions in the General Construction Law, Human Rights Law, tax and education laws—to mean that a public school district is not an “education corporation or association” prohibited from discriminating against or permitting harassment of students. The three-vote dissent read the intersecting provisions differently, and concluded, “It is antithetical to the purpose of the [HRL] to exempt public schools from its mandate…. The clear and expressed intent of the [HRL] is to protect ‘every individual’ in the State from the evils of discrimination.”

The decisions in paired race-harassment cases mean that the New York State Division of Human Rights lacks jurisdiction to investigate complaints by students claiming to have been discriminated against or harassed in public schools. See In re North Syracuse Central School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights, Case No. 109 (N.Y. June 12, 2012), and In re Ithaca City School District v. N.Y. State Division of Human Rights, Case No. 110 (N.Y. June 12, 2012). The rulings also preclude suit in court under the HRL. Consequently, of more than 3 million schoolchildren in the state, only about 2 percent (those in private, nonsectarian schools) can seek redress under the HRL for school-based discrimination or harassment. This result, coupled with awareness of the severe and sometimes tragic consequences of harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence in schools, should power legislative repair of the HRL to protect New York’s public school students.

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