Dealing with School Retaliation

This article is part of our “Dealing with…” advice series, written by activists based on their own experiences.

On this page you’ll find information about your right to freedom from school retaliation. If you are facing retaliation from your college or university, we urge you to contact a lawyer for support.

What Is Retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when a school intimidates, threatens, coerces, or in any way discriminates against an individual who has brought a concern or reported a possible violation of a federal civil right. This includes formal or informal reports of a violation and reports regarding a violation of your own rights or the rights of others.

There are many different types of school conduct that could be considered retaliatory if they occur in response to your complaint or other activism. Some examples may include:

  • Disciplining you for “disruptive” protest activities or for naming your assailant
  • Failing to accommodate your housing or other academic needs
  • Forcing or pressuring you to take time off from school
  • Removing you from sports teams or other extracurricular activities
  • Pressuring you to stop talking to media

For conduct to qualify as retaliation it must be related to your civil rights concern or complaint being brought to the school’s attention.

Can schools retaliate?

No. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education recently warned schools against taking such actions:

The Federal civil rights laws make it unlawful to retaliate against an individual for the purpose of interfering with any right or privilege secured by these laws. If, for example, an individual brings concerns about possible civil rights problems to a school’s attention, it is unlawful for the school to retaliate against that individual for doing so. It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual because he or she made a complaint, testified, or participated in any manner in an OCR investigation or proceeding.

If you report a possible violation of a civil right, then you are automatically protected against retaliation. This is true regardless of the merits of the underlying claim — meaning even if the initial concern or report does not result in a finding that a civil right was violated, you still cannot be retaliated against. This is to ensure that individuals feel free to assert their federal civil rights and do not suffer adverse consequences for being whistleblowers.

What if others are retaliating against me?

Under Title IX, only the school’s conduct toward the recipient party qualifies as retaliation. This includes conduct by anyone acting on the school’s behalf, such as the administration, faculty, or other employees. That means that if you are being harassed, intimidated, or threatened by other parties — such as other students — it does not qualify as retaliation. However, it may be the basis of a Title IX complaint.

What Can I Do About Retaliation?

If you are being retaliated against, immediately start collecting documents and recording events that indicate retaliation. For example, print and save emails, record any meetings or calls, and note any events. All records should include the date, time, parties involved, and the matters discussed. Keeping this information in chronological order on a spreadsheet may also be helpful.

In addition to taking the above actions, consider calling your school’s Title IX Coordinator and informing them of the situation. The Coordinator may be willing to remedy the situation in order to insulate the school from any further liability.

You can also contact the OCR at ocr@ed.gov. OCR enforces civil rights laws and will take action against schools that retaliate. If you have already filed a formal Title IX complaint with their office, inform them of the retaliation immediately so that it becomes part of their investigation. Even if you do not have a formal complaint, you can contact OCR to address this retaliation.

In general, to show that you have been retaliated against, you must demonstrate that:

  • You engaged in activities or asserted rights protected under Title IX;
  • Your school knew of those activities or asserted rights;
  • Your school then subjected you to adverse action, treatment or conditions; and
  • There is a causal connection between the protected activity and the retaliation.

If the retaliation is severe or threatening — placing you in imminent danger or fear thereof — then you can always call the police. Certain harassing and threatening behaviors are criminal and you should be free to live your life without fear of these forms of retaliation.

Although these resources have been written with the guidance of legal experts, we are not lawyers, and the information on this website does not constitute legal advice. We encourage you to contact a lawyer to discuss your complaint or suit.