Attorney General James and NYSED Commissioner Rosa Issue Guidance to Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in New York Public Schools

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York State Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner Betty A. Rosa issued guidance reminding New York public schools and local education agencies of their obligation to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in educational planning and decision-making. As states and school districts across the country adopt exclusionary educational policies that deny students from diverse backgrounds and identities access to a safe and affirming learning environment, Attorney General James and Commissioner Rosa are providing resources to school leaders that assist in fulfilling their commitment to ensuring every student in New York has the opportunity to learn free from the fear of discrimination, harassment, or intimidation.

The joint guidance issued today offers recommendations for upholding the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion in three key areas of the school experience: 1) learning and teaching; 2) student discipline; and 3) addressing bullying and harassment. The guidance also warns against actions that may contribute to a hostile environment for students of diverse backgrounds and identities, such as banning books, and provides schools with resources to help create and foster environments that protect every student’s right to access equal education.

“Every student in New York is entitled to learn, grow, and discover in an environment free from discrimination or harassment,” said Attorney General James. “As states such as Texas, Florida, and Missouri are banning books and canceling classes, New York is making clear that diversity, equity, and inclusion will always be protected and central to our children’s education. We know that our kids and teachers thrive when they feel seen and heard, and I thank Commissioner Rosa and Chancellor Young for their partnership in supporting our communities. If any student, parent, or teacher has concerns, I encourage them to contact my office.”

“We are urging every school district to reflect on local policies, strategies, and tactics and advance the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure all students have the supports necessary to be fully engaged,” said Commissioner Rosa. “Students cannot learn and develop socially and emotionally when they feel disconnected, intimidated, harassed, or discriminated against. We have a responsibility to remove the barriers that stand in the way of success for many students. In partnership with Attorney General James and our school and district leaders, the Department and Board of Regents can foster a safe, supportive environment where all New York State students feel included and welcome.” 

“As citizens of this great state, we are responsible for prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our education system. It is crucial that all school districts develop and implement policies that promote these values with urgency and fidelity,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. “By incorporating diverse perspectives into the curriculum, our students can learn to respect and value others, ultimately fostering a culture of tolerance and dignity. As future leaders of New York State, it is essential that our students are equipped with critical thinking skills and a deep understanding of civic engagement. These are the building blocks for a better future, and we must ensure that they are given the tools they need to succeed.”

State and federal human rights laws prohibit discrimination in educational institutions on the basis of race, national origin, disability, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and age, among other protected classes. In addition, New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, which took effect in 2012 and was updated in 2021, requires that public schools create an educational environment where students are free to learn without fear of discrimination, harassment, or intimidation. In 2021, the Board of Regents adopted a policy urging districts to develop and implement policies and practices advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the guidance, Attorney General James and Commissioner Rosa identify three core principles that public schools and local education agencies can implement to honor their obligations to their students under the law:

1) Ensure teaching and learning reflect the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

All students should be provided with the opportunity to learn from multiple perspectives, and curricula should be up-to-date, accurate, and reflect the truth of the struggles diverse groups in this country have endured. Schools cannot ban curricular materials such as textbooks that accurately portray and critically analyze topics related to protected classes such as race, national origin, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation.

2) Address disproportionately punitive student disciplinary policies and practices.

Discipline policies and practices should be designed and implemented in a non-discriminatory way to ensure all students have equal educational opportunity. According to the U.S. Department of Education, student discipline disproportionately involves students of color, particularly Black students, and students with disabilities, likely attributable to implicit systemic biases. Schools should expand efforts to train personnel on developmentally appropriate, restorative alternatives to punitive punishment to foster a safe and positive school environment so every student can learn.

3) Establish effective policies and procedures to prevent and respond to bullying and harassment.

The law requires schools and local education agencies to take a proactive approach to protect students from bullying and harassment. Schools should enact policies and procedures to create a school environment free from harassment, bullying, and discrimination and implement training and counseling that discourage the development of hostile environments.  

The guidance also warns schools and local education agencies against actions that may violate the law, including but not limited to: banning books; prohibiting discussions of slavery, disability, or the LGBTQ+ community; preventing students from joining extracurricular activities or using specific facilities because they may not conform to gender stereotypes; barring a non-binary student from a single-gender extracurricular program; and forbidding natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with Black people.

A school’s climate is one of the most critical predictive factors of its capacity to provide every student with an equal opportunity to learn and succeed, and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and NYSED are committed to ensuring that students’ rights are protected at school. New Yorkers with information regarding misconduct such as discrimination or harassment in and out of the classroom are encouraged to contact OAG’s Civil Rights Bureau.

This matter was handled for OAG by Assistant Attorneys General Joel Marrero, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, and Kyle Rapiñan and former Assistant Attorneys General Brooke Tucker and Amanda Meyer of the Civil Rights Bureau under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Travis England. The Civil Rights Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.