Western Educational Equity Assistance Center

Nondiscrimination and Civil Rights Laws 

Nondiscrimination and Civil Rights Laws You Should Know-PDF

All educational institutions and agencies receiving federal funds are covered by nondiscrimination civil rights laws which prohibit discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, color, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and disability. Most districts or schools receive federal funds for Title I, Special Education, Career and Technical Education, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and English Language Acquisition, and other programs. States and districts are responsible to ensure that these nondiscrimination and civil rights laws are implemented.

Several laws and Executive Orders make up most of the nondiscrimination and civil rights protections for students and employees. It is important that school and district administrators, teachers, parents and students understand these protections. Any educational program that receives federal funds is covered under these laws and Executive Orders. Recently, policies, legislation and court decisions have strengthened these protections in many areas of educational system operations.

Federal and regional offices of these agencies receive complaints of discrimination. They also provide technical assistance in most instances. Most state education agencies also provide technical assistance. The Equity Assistance Centers also provide technical assistance related to implementation of these laws and policies. This document provides an updated summary of Nondiscrimination and Civil Rights laws as of July 2022.


This is not legal advice. WEEAC staff members are not lawyers. You should consult with your school district’s legal counsel regarding how your district plans to implement the regulations.

There are numerous resources available to help educators understand the complex nondiscrimination laws. One of the first set of resources developed for this is still useful (McCune & Matthews, 1976; McCune & Caruthers, 1991). The following update of this resource highlights the most important nondiscrimination laws, provides links to resources for each, and provides additional information.

Several antidiscrimination laws, case law and some Executive Orders make up most of the antidiscrimination requirements that apply to educational settings.

Federal Antidiscrimination Law

Executive Orders

Case Law

  • Plessy v. Ferguson 1896: The Supreme Court authorizes segregation, finding Louisiana’s Separate but Equal law constitutional. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/163/537
  • Mendez v. Westminster 1947: a California federal circuit court ruled that segregation of school children was unconstitutional. This case involved the segregation of Mexican American school children. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/mendez-case
  • Brown v. Board of Education 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson stating that separate schools are “inherently unequal”. It applies to states and Washington D.C schools. https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/brown-v-boardof-
  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education 1971: the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to uphold busing programs to speed up racial integration of public schools in this North Carolina district. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/
  • Keyes v. School District #1 1973: This Denver case was the first addressing discrimination against Hispanic and Black students. Segregative intent by the school board involving one part of the district meant they had to prove that the whole system was not affected by segregation. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/413/189
  • Lau v. Nichols 1974: In this San Francisco case, the Supreme Court ruled that refusing to provide non-English-speaking students with supplemental language courses violated California Education Law and Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling meant that public schools are required to develop plans for increasing the linguistic skills of non-English-speaking students. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/ell/lau.html
  • Castañeda v. Pickard (1981) The United States Court of Appeals for Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals formulated a three part test to determine school district compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act(1974). The three-part test includes the following criteria:
  • Theory: The school must pursue a program based on an educational theory recognized as sound or at least, as a legitimate experimental strategy.
  • Practice: The school must actually implement the program with instructional practices, resources and personnel necessary to transfer theory to reality.
  • Results: The school must not persist in a program that fails to produce results.

The “Castaneda Test” has been applied by courts in Keyes vs. School District #1 and Gomez vs. Illinois. https://www.idra.org/equity-assistance-center/laws-court-cases/  or https://www.liquisearch.com/casta%C3%B1eda_v_pickard

Western Educational Equity Assistance Center

Email: [email protected]

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