In 2017, The Washington Post reported that one large school district may have engaged in discrimination against black teacher applicants. Specifically, this study found that black applicants were far less likely than white applicants to receive job offers, even though, on average, the black applicants had more classroom experience and, in some cases, advanced degrees. Another recent article reported that a white teacher who alleged that a less-qualified black teacher was hired instead of her for an assistant principal position settled the case out of court for $45,000. These findings and others raise legal questions related to racial discrimination in school employment. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that race discrimination is the most frequent type of complaint it receives.

Employment discrimination cases typically arise when an employee claims that an employment-related decision was based on the employee’s protected status rather than on actual qualifications. Companies make decisions throughout the employment process, which can include matters of recruiting, information required on employment applications, information sought as part of the interview assessment, hiring, evaluation, promotion, or termination. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination in these types of employment-related decisions is prohibited, as is discrimination in compensation practices and employment terms and conditions. Although an employer may inquire as to an individual’s ability to perform the essential functions of employment, decisions about employment should not be based on the protected characteristics of an applicant. Protected characteristics under Title VII include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Employment disputes in recent years have increasingly focused on alleged discriminatory practices in violations of Title VII. In these cases, individuals have claimed that race was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

Establishing a Race Discrimination Case

In order to prove a Title VII violation, a plaintiff must initially prove: 1) identification as a racial minority, 2) qualification(s) for the specific position, 3) rejection of the plaintiff’s application, and 4) the continued review by the prospective employer of other individuals or applicants with similar qualifications for the position. These four prongs emerged as part of the burden-shifting framework established by the Supreme Court.Once an applicant satisfies the requirement of proving these four prongs, the prospective employer has the burden of refuting the allegation of discrimination by providing a nondiscriminatory reason for the employment decision. If this reason is legitimate and justifies the employer’s decision, the burden shifts back to the applicant, who must then assert that the alleged nondiscriminatory reasons were simply a pretext to mask employment discrimination.

Illustrative Cases

The case results are mixed and very fact-specific, and a few recent illustrative cases amplify this point. For example, in two of the cases discussed below, the courts failed to find evidence of employment discrimination on the basis of race, but the third case rendered a ruling that indicated the possibility of a jury concluding that race was a motivating factor in an employment decision.

In the first case, the federal court found that a substitute teacher failed to overcome the burden of showing that the school board’s reason for a negative employment decision was merely a pretext for masking racial discrimination. In this case, a black substitute teacher was allegedly terminated due to her prior conviction for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The teacher asserted that her termination was discriminatory because two white teachers with criminal backgrounds were not also terminated. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the teacher failed to prove the two white teachers were similarly situated or that they received different treatment given evidence that those teachers were forced to resign from the school district. Accordingly, the school district’s asserted reason for terminating the teacher’s employment was not a pretext for race discrimination.

In a second case, a black teacher who was not promoted to various positions in her school district sued for racial discrimination under Title VII, among other claims. The teacher had obtained her administrator’s license, was pursuing her doctorate, and was chosen as “Teacher of the Year” in 2010. However, when she had applied for 12 different leadership positions (e.g., assistant principal) in the district over an eight-year period, the positions were each filled with other white and black applicants. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, finding that in regard to her one remaining Title VII race discrimination claim, the position she sought would have been a lateral move.

In contrast, the same circuit court found that a jury might find that racial discrimination occurred in another school-related case. A former employee who was part of the professional development team within the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) claimed that CPS engaged in racial discrimination in violation of Title VII. The plaintiff argued that CPS hired a white woman who had fewer credentials than the plaintiff, who was black. The plaintiff and the other woman had worked in the same department in CPS, but had both been dismissed during a large-scale district layoff. When CPS began to rehire some of its former teachers, the white woman was selected over the black plaintiff, even though the plaintiff had a more impressive teaching background and had earned two master’s degrees. Reversing the lower court, the 7th Circuit found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff was better qualified for the job than the other applicant and that race may have been a decisive factor in the hiring process.

Takeaways for Principals

The consequences of employment discrimination cases are wide ranging and may include an array of remedies for employees who successfully prove they suffered employment discrimination. These remedies include, for example, back pay, reinstatement, promotion, reasonable accommodation, attorney fees, and court costs. Violations of Title VII may also include compensatory or punitive damages against individuals, but not against the state, if intentional discrimination or actual malice is found.

The Title VII employment discrimination cases reveal that school systems need to be vigilant about advancing employment practices and workplace settings that are free from discrimination, including reverse discrimination on the basis of race. Several critical lessons learned from these cases include the importance of making employment decisions that are based on nondiscriminatory reasons and maintaining evidence of legitimate factors used in reaching adverse employment decisions.

Additional advice includes training supervisors to respond quickly to discrimination claims, to investigate such claims in a timely fashion, and to document evidence of such efforts to respond to discrimination and stop the behavior or conduct. Such efforts will not only reduce litigation, but also improve the morale and working conditions of school employees. Keep in mind, when discriminatory factors influence employment decisions or the workplace, employees and their commitment to the school mission may be negatively impacted.

Susan C. Bon, PhD, JD, is a professor in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She has published widely on school legal matters. Suzanne E. Eckes, PhD, JD, is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. She has published widely on school legal matters and is the president-elect of the Education Law Association.