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Discrimination at School

Australian Capital Territory

Discrimination laws for schools have been made to make sure that all students are treated the same way and given the same opportunities as other students. You don’t have to put up with discrimination at school.


What is discrimination?

Discrimination can be:

  • when you are treated worse than others because of a characteristic that you have. For example, when a teacher picks on your disability and treats you differently to your classmates; or
  • when a rule seems fair to everyone but is unfair to you.  For example, if there is a school rule that you must wear a hat during sports, but it is against your religion to wear hats, then you are being treated unfairly.

Discrimination can happen because of your:

  • race;
  • religious beliefs;
  • political beliefs;
  • sex; 
  • gender identity;
  • sexuality; 
  • age;
  • disability - including physical and mental illness or infectious diseases;
  • pregnancy or breastfeeding;
  • status as a parent or carer; 
  • relationship status; and
  • relationship with someone, like a parent or family member, with one of the above characteristics.

Are schools ever allowed to discriminate against students?

Not all forms of discrimination are against the law. Sometimes schools can make rules that discriminate against students.

A school can refuse to enroll you if:

  • it is a single sex school and you are of the opposite sex;
  • the school is for students above a certain age and you are not above that age.
  • the school only assists students with a certain disability and you do not have that disability; or
  • it would cause the school unjustifiable hardship to provide the necessary resources or services required because of your disability. 

Private and religious schools can also:

  • refuse to enrol you based on your religious beliefs; or
  • ask you to stay home if you are pregnant and unmarried (if the school determines that your presence would harm the religious beliefs of those around you).

Students with a disability and unjustifiable hardship

If a school refuses to take you in because it would cause it unjustifiable hardship to meet your needs, it would need to show that:

  • it has considered all the options or adjustments available and discussed them with you and your parents; and
  • the adjustments that would need to be made to accommodate your disability would cost, or disadvantage, the school or other students or staff more than you would benefit from the adjustment being made. It is a case of weighing up the pros and cons. For example, if the school can prove that it cannot pay for your adjustment, it can usually claim unjustifiable hardship and refuse to enrol you.

What can I do if I have experienced discrimination?

Report the discrimination

If you have experienced discrimination you should:

  1. Tell your school principal. You can take a friend, teacher or parent with you if you like.
  2. Keep a record of what happened, when it happened, who did it and the names of any other people involved.
  3. Ask for a copy of your school’s discrimination policy so you can make sure the school is following the policy.
  4. If you don’t think the school is following its policy, you (or your parents) can make a complaint to the school.
  5. If you’re not happy with how the school dealt with your complaint, you can take the matter further by complaining to your school’s Regional Director; ACT Department of Education and Training (if it’s a public school); board of governors (if it’s a private school); or the Catholic Education Commission (if it’s a Catholic systemic school).
  6. If the issue is still not resolved you can make a complaint to either the Australian Human Rights Commission or the ACT Human Rights Commission (but you can only complain to one or the other). It is free to make a complaint. 
  7. There are time limits associated with making a complaint to the Australian or ACT Human Rights Commissions. For a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, you should complain within 12 months of the discrimination occurring; otherwise there is a risk that the complaint won’t be investigated. For complaints to the ACT Human Rights Commission, you should complain within two years of the discrimination.
  8. Complaints are usually resolved through ‘conciliation’, where you sit down with your school and an officer from the Commission and have a chat about what happened and what the school can do to resolve the complaint; ideally coming to an agreement.
  9. But sometimes this process does not lead to a good outcome. You then have the option of taking the complaint to a tribunal or court. However, you should not go to court or a tribunal without getting legal advice and representation first. It is often available for free!
  10. You may feel scared about making a complaint, but it is against the law for someone to treat you unfairly or harm you because you made a complaint against them. If that happens, they can be fined or imprisoned.

Tell someone

Discrimination is unacceptable and you may want to speak to your parents or another adult that you trust. If you do not speak to someone, or report what happened, then no one will know what is going on and they can’t help you. We have provided you with a list of important contacts to call at the end of this page if you need to talk to someone else.

Where to complain if school doesn’t help

It can be difficult to make a complaint. If you need help there are services that can assist you.

AgencyContact DetailsTime limit for making a complaint
Australia (all states and territories)Australian Human Rights Commission1300 656 419
12 months
Australian Capital TerritoryACT Human Rights Commission(02) 6205 2222
2 Years

This page was last updated 15 April 2015.