In the United States, students attend school with the understanding that they have certain rights. Among these are the freedom to wear clothing of their choice, the freedom to express themselves verbally, and the right to privacy. While these rights are not always absolute, they provide a framework within which students can expect to be treated fairly. Understanding your rights as a student is essential in order to ensure that you are able to learn and thrive in an educational environment.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to free speech. This means that students are generally permitted to express their opinions on matters of public concern without fear of retribution. However, there are some limits on this right, and schools may place restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech in order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment.
Knowing your rights can help you stand up for yourself if you feel that you have been mistreated, and it can also help you create a more positive experience for yourself and for other students at your school.
This article details student rights at school and expounds on the coverage of each. In reading the write-up, youngsters will know the privileges entitled to them as students and discern if certain actions and events within school grounds infringe on their rights. Educators, on the other hand, will be informed of their responsibilities and limitations as the stewards of learning in school.
In 2017, children of color made up the majority of students in public elementary and secondary schools at 52%, overtaking Caucasian students. Moreover, by 2029, the share of white American students will have dropped to 44% (NCES, 2020). Given this, the need for students to know their rights is of utmost importance. After all, students of color are prone to receiving suspensions, collectively amassing 11 million missed school days in the 2015-2016 school year alone (ACLU, nd). Furthermore, students of every race, age, gender identity, and socio-economic status can be a target of bullying, harassment, unjust school policies, uneven academic opportunities, and other forms of prejudice.
Source: NCES 2020
Schools can address this by prioritizing the rights and responsibilities entitled to students. They can perform the necessary adjustments, such as increasing the capacity and breadth of social, academic, and health services, to make campuses more conducive to learning. However, there lies another hurdle: staffing. As it stands, law enforcers on campus outnumber social workers, 27,000 to 23,000 (ACLU, nd). This might not seem alarming from the onset, but social workers provide assistance in a broad range of fields, from accommodating the health concerns of students to offering classroom and academic support (SSWAA, nd). Moreover, American public schools appear to have a shortage of counselors, with the national ratio at 444 students to one counselor, a far cry from the recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1 (ACLU, nd).
There is also the case of law enforcement misinterpreting the definition of serious offenses, which potentially infringes on student rights in higher education and even those in lower levels. In fact, only 3% of the more than 1 million “serious offenses” involved weapons (ACLU, nd), not to mention the numerous landmark cases in which the courts favored students over the prejudiced actions of schools.
Students can arm themselves against any unlawful pronouncement or action if they know their rights.
Student rights and responsibilities in public schools slightly differ from those in private institutions, since the former is covered by blanket laws set forth by the United States Constitution (Kennedy, 2019). Private schools, on the other hand, are subject to a legal responsibility known as In Loco Parentis in which the institution assumes the role of a parent, along with its responsibilities in protecting its students (US Constitution, nd). The limits of its provisions can be set and administered arbitrarily.
Since private schools implement their own contract laws, the actions against offenders are generally faster than those in public schools. This could be a double-edged sword in that unjust rulings can be enacted just as swiftly.
However, this does not mean that private school students do not have sufficient rights and protection from unjust acts and school laws. The student handbook details the rules and regulations that learners, faculty, and the institution should abide by, formalized by a student’s and their parents’ signatures should they agree with its contents. And if any of the policies indicated promotes inequality or infringes on one’s human rights, the courts can mete out sanctions and new regulations that the school should comply with. The Supreme Court has also ruled against unreasonable laws and practices applied not just by a private school, but also the state (Zhou, 2020).
Given that student rights in private institutions are not entirely covered by the student-related statutes of the United States Constitution, we elected to focus on the rights of learners in public schools.
While holding disruptive practices could be barred within school premises depending on the state, students have the right to conduct protests, distribute flyers, wear clothing and/or accessories in protest or support of a movement, and publicly express statements for or against a political figure even if they are counter to the school’s stances (ACLU, nd). This extends to social media.
If a school prohibits a student from putting on a particular article of clothing, it should not be because of their expressed message. Rather, it must be in violation of the school’s dress code. Similarly, walking out of class is tantamount to sanctions only due to its disruptive nature, and not the stance taken by the student (ACLU, nd). In addition, protests may be organized in school without receiving any infraction as long as they do not interrupt the institution’s primary functions, which are to hold classes and safeguard students within its premises.
There are limits, however, to the manner in which a student can exercise their right to political expression. The school may prohibit such should the statements and actions be obscene, slanderous, libelous, entail unlawful acts, or disrupt school functions (My School My Rights, nd).
Similar to the right to political speech, students have the right to free expression. They must not be prohibited by the school from saying, writing, or expressing on any legal medium their thoughts and opinions even if these do not reflect the school’s sentiments (My School My Rights, nd).
Depending on the school and state, there are limits to this freedom. Statements and actions that interrupt school functions like classes and convocations and/or violate the rights of school staff and other learners may be prohibited. Profanity and obscene sexual references may also be barred. However, schools are not permitted to restrict student speech solely because they find it disagreeable or done in poor taste (Tashman, 2017).
Bullying and harassment occur when a student, teacher, or any member of the school staff commits acts that make another feel unsafe, negatively affect their wellbeing, or compromise their participation in school. These come in various forms, such as physical violence, sexual advances, humiliation, intimidation, or cyberbullying, and broach many themes, which include gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, and political inclination.
In 2017, it was discovered that around 20% of learners aged 12 to 18 were bullied in school, with the most prevalent types, including subjecting the bullied parties to rumors, insults, and physical violence (NCES, 2020). The survey does not take into account the students who were too terrified to report the bullying or harassment they have been receiving.
Given how serious these acts are, school officials are expected to immediately intervene when any form of bullying and harassment occurs (My School My Rights, nd) in order to give the students their right to attend class in a safe environment. The perpetrators can be charged for violating school laws, the victim’s civil rights, and discrimination laws if applicable. Meanwhile, parents and guardians are advised to document the events before filing a complaint with the school, school district, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and/or other relevant government institutions.
Accusations of bullying are sensitive in nature, thus schools must hear out and investigate the accounts of both the accuser and the accused before meting out the corresponding sanctions, as needed. Most schools have systems in place to counter and address bullying and harassment, but if an institution does not have them, parents can demand that the school implement them (My School My Rights, nd).
While schools may enforce dress code policies, they are not allowed to use the dress code as a means to discriminate against people of color or a particular sector within the student body. It also cannot be used to force learners to conform to gender stereotypes, silence political messages, or target people who wear clothing and accessories arbitrarily defined as gang-related (Tashman, 2017).
Students are free to express themselves through their clothing in school. However, the school has the right to enforce the dress code policy against clothes that are sexually explicit, feature nudity, have profane messages, or promote drug use (My School My Rights, nd). Religious clothing is usually acceptable as long as it will not cause disruptions in school functions.
Students cannot be denied entry to a school on the basis of race. Even undocumented individuals have the right to receive public education. The fact is, the U.S. Constitution mandates equal access to public education for all students. There are schools that are either unaware of this or blatantly disregard the rights of immigrant students, which has led to a series of cases filed against them (ACLU, 2016). Furthermore, schools are required to furnish English classes to students with limited proficiency in the language (Tashman, 2017).
Even if a school has yet to declare itself as a safe zone, immigrant students should still be admitted if they accomplish all admission requirements (My School My Rights, nd), and this extends to higher education. Non-citizens and undocumented students, however, might not be eligible to receive federal financial aid, depending on the laws of the school and the state (My School My Rights, nd).
Protected by legislation, disabled students have the right to the same access to education as non-disabled learners, which includes academic programs, extracurricular activities, school services, field trips, and outreach programs (Tashman, 2017). They cannot be isolated from the general student population unless viable reasons are provided. The disabilities covered by Section 504 are physical and mental impairments that cause difficulties in performing life activities (US Department of Education, nd). It is important to note that minor and transitory impairments with a duration of six months or less are not regarded as disabilities (US Department of Education, nd).
For students who are unsure if their condition counts as a disability, they can request for assessment from the school’s counselor or medical professionals to see if they qualify. Students can also challenge the results of an assessment and request for independent evaluation (My School My Rights, nd).
Schools are also compelled by the law to adjust their floor and building schemes to make the facilities accessible to students and staff with disabilities or at least provide a means to make daily activities easy such as ramps, widened doors, and the like (My School My Rights, nd).
LGBTQ students are prone to bullying. With almost 2 million of the country’s youth, aged 13 to 17, identifying as members of the LGBT community (UCLA Williams Institute, 2020), they need all the protection they can get in school, and it begins with knowing their rights as students.
Source: UCLA Williams Institute 2020
Students have the right to act and express themselves in accordance with their gender identity (Tashman, 2017). This includes clothing as well as joining or organizing an LGBTQ community. Schools, on the other hand, do not have the right to out members of the LGBTQ community to students and staff without consent. Likewise, bullying, humiliating, harassing, and discriminating against LGBTQ students are prohibited and can be grounds for civil cases. Any incident involving bullying or discrimination must be reported to the principal, counselor, or other relevant authorities.
The school should also address LGBTQ students according to the pronouns and names that they identify with even if the names have not been legally changed (My School My Rules, nd). However, in the case of the latter, the school must still use the legal name of the student for all official documents.
Pregnant students must have equal access to academic programs, extracurricular activities, and accommodations as the other members of the student body. And if they are to miss classes due to their pregnancy, they must be given make-up classes and activities without sanction or discrimination. Schools are prohibited from giving sanctions to students who opt to terminate a pregnancy, and neither are they allowed to reveal to students and staff about a student’s pregnancy without consent (Tashman, 2017).
Schoolwork missed due to pregnancy can be submitted, even if the deadline has lapsed, once the student returns to class, and should be counted in grading (US Department of Education, nd). Any form of harassment from other students, teachers, and school officials is not allowed and should merit sanctions. In addition, the school must have a policy against discrimination and publish the process of filing grievances to safeguard the wellbeing of learners, including pregnant students.
Moreover, pregnant students have the right to remain as regular students in a school even if they avail of the childcare services offered by the district or other educational institutions (My School My Rights, nd).
According to the United States Constitution, students have the right to receive equal education regardless of their race, religion, and ethnic background (ACLU, nd). As such, schools must not discriminate against students of color and/or of any religious practice; otherwise, cases can be filed against them in court (AP, 2020). Some states, like California, allow students to wear tribal regalia and other adornments of cultural and religious significance, provided that they are not disruptive to classes and other school activities (My School My Rights, nd).
In the case of graduation ceremonies, a tribal feather may be worn on the cap or gown if the student chooses to (My School My Rights, nd).
All students have the right to receive medical treatments from the school’s medical facilities as needed. Minors do not need to bring a parent or guardian to avail of medical services, but students below the age of 12 might not have direct access to treatments for mental illnesses, alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug use (My School My Rights, nd). Information regarding medical appointments should be kept confidential by schools. Furthermore, students must be excused from class to attend their medical appointments (Your Health Your Rights, nd).
In addition, depending on state and district laws, schools must provide menstrual products in restrooms for easy access. Excusing students from class due to menstrual concerns is at the school’s discretion, but students may write the teacher or school a letter that explains their condition (My School My Rights, nd).
In a broader term, students have the right to a positive learning environment so they can pursue their dreams free from issues associated with debilitating student stressors.
Teaching sex education is compulsory in 33 US states as well as in the nation’s capital (NCSL, 2020), and is even mandatory in distance education amid the pandemic in California (My School My Rights, nd). Given the threat posed by HIV, 39 states require schools to teach students about the disease, and 22 mandate schools to uphold the accuracy of the content and data being imparted (NCSL, 2020).
Meanwhile, 25 states require schools to inform parents that the students will attend sex education classes while 36 give parents the freedom to make their children not attend the classes (NCSL, 2020). Parental consent to attend sex education classes is required in five states.
Students have the right to privacy, which covers the use of mobile phones, and may deny access to teachers and other school officials who intend to look at their phone’s contents without having to receive sanctions for it (My School My Rights, nd). School officials may only access a student’s phone in the event of a life-threatening emergency, an incident that poses immediate danger or harm, or if a judge issues a search warrant should the phone contain evidence of a crime.
The school does not have the right to access a student’s phone without consent even if the device is illicitly used in class, causes disruption, violates other school rules, or if school officials intend to leverage its contents to investigate someone else’s behavior (My School My Rules, nd). Students have the right to refuse when handed a waiver that permits the school to view their phones’ contents.
What the school can do is restrict mobile phone usage and confiscate the devices of violators. However, school officials are not allowed to access confiscated phones. As for phones to which access has been granted access through a search warrant, school officials and officers may only look at content that is relevant to the case, otherwise, such actions are deemed illegal (My School My Rules, nd).
Some states grant students the right to receive education from public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic (My School My Rights, nd). Unfortunately, not all states have reopened their schools (Education Week, 2021) given that the disease is still spreading in all corners of the globe, including the United States. A lot of schools, however, offer distance learning or eLearning programs through which students can continue their schooling at home.
In states like California, schools are compelled to continue education by providing devices for distance learning, conduct video classes, offering online instructional materials, or handing out mobile hotspots (My School My Rights, nd). If these are not possible, instructors can communicate with their students using a mobile device.
School discipline policies vary from state to state (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, nd). For instance, in California, schools carry out disciplinary actions such as suspensions, expulsions, or involuntary transfers (My School My Rights, nd), depending on the offense committed.
Suspensions are handed out based on a state’s or district’s listed behaviors, which are usually considered serious offenses. Minor offenses like tardiness, absences, or being inattentive in class do not merit suspensions. Moreover, in some states, fourth graders and younger students cannot be suspended for willfully defying school authorities (My School My Rights, nd). As every student has a right to due process, a student should be given a chance to air their side of the story and submit evidence before a suspension is formalized. The school should also provide a notice to the student’s parents before meting out the suspension. As for duration, depending on state or district laws, the suspension should not last beyond five consecutive days and neither should it be longer than 20 days per school year.
Expulsions are reserved for the most serious offenses like the possession of deadly weapons, committing heinous acts like assault and sexual assault, and selling or using contrabands (My School My Rights, nd). A student also has the right to a hearing a month before expulsion so that the authorities have ample time to review the merits of the case. Before the hearing, a student must continue to receive education from the school.
Reviewing the student handbook is a necessity in this regard since the policies should never violate a student’s constitutional rights while disciplinary actions should not be handed out based on race, gender identity, religion, and the like (Lee, nd). Furthermore, students have the right to challenge any accusation in an informal setting.
The number of students experiencing homelessness in the country has risen steadily, amounting to more than 1.5 million in the 2017-2018 school year (National Center for Homeless Education, 2020). Given the hardships that they experience, the country grants them additional rights to help equalize their learning opportunities with those of regular students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and similar legislation (US Department of Education, 2020).
Homeless students have the right to receive education from their “school of best interest,” which could be the institution they attended when they experienced homelessness or the one nearest their current address, among others (My School My Rights, nd). They have the right to free transportation to that school as well as the right to enrollment in said school even if their documents are lacking and if the enrollment period has already lapsed. In addition, homeless learners should receive comparable school services to those of regular students. Schools cannot divulge information on a student’s homelessness unless they receive consent from the student or his or her family.
To be considered homeless, a student must be sharing another person’s home or room due to low family income, living in a motel or trailer, staying in a shelter, residing in an abandoned space, or living in a substandard home (My School My Rights, nd).
With the prevalence of social media use, a student’s access to social media in class is now at the school’s discretion. One reason for this is that, according to social media research, around 70% of students browsed social media sites while nine out of 10 learners sent text messages during classes (McCoy, 2016). Social media rights tend to vary per institution given that some school computers have software that monitors student browsing. One’s freedom of speech applies to social media, but if the posts contain messages that are deemed disruptive to classes and similar functions, say, verbal threats to students and staff, the school may discipline the students who posted them (My School My Rights, nd). Bullying someone on social media, regardless if the poster is a student or a school employee, could merit sanctions.
Students have the right to decline searches in school even if they were conducted by police officers, provided that they do not have a warrant. Should the school find evidence through an illegal search, it cannot be used in court but can hold weight in school proceedings (My School My Rights, nd). This does not mean, however, that schools cannot perform searches. An educational institution can search a student without their consent if it finds reasonable suspicion in one’s acts or belongings, meaning their bases are not hinged on hunches and rumors. Lockers that are considered school property, and not the students’, can be searched.
Schools can also conduct searches through dog sniffing and metal detectors, but they cannot perform strip searches on students (My School My Rights, nd).
Learners have the right to file a complaint with the school should the actions of students, teaching staff, school officials, and administrative staff violate their rights as citizens and/or students (My School My Rights, nd). The law mandates school principals to conduct investigations and enforce the corresponding disciplinary actions to offenders. In the case of bullying and similar offenses, students can file a complaint with the school district superintended if the harassment persists. If the district’s investigation yields questionable results, students can appeal the case to the state’s education department.
Besides the Department of Education, students have the right to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), especially if the school or school district discriminated against them on the aforesaid basis (My School My Rights, nd). They can bypass the school and district, and file a complaint straight with the OCR. Furthermore, students can also file complaints with civil groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which can help in filing court cases, and similar organizations.
Schools are ideally safe spaces where students can learn freely with no apprehensions and concerns about their security and wellbeing. Unfortunately, biases and inflexible perspectives have paved the way for prejudice and its many forms in many schools, and the perpetually rising population of colored students (NCES, 2020) paints more targets for unjust individuals. Knowing one’s rights as a student can keep them protected from these prejudices.
While many of the rights discussed in this article apply to all public schools in the country, there are some that vary per state or district. For instance, the school discipline rights in California might not exactly reflect those in Chicago or Alabama (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, nd; My School My Rights, nd). As such, taking the time to research and understand one’s rights is a worthwhile practice, especially for those who feel that they are experiencing harassment or discrimination in school.
Filing a complaint is also part of a student’s rights and there are enough institutions that offer help in this regard, from the school and school district to the Department of Education and other relevant associations (My School My Rights, nd). However, students might be harassed or intimidated by their oppressors to not report the unlawful acts that they are experiencing.
With this, schools should be proactive in their stance against bullying and prejudice so that learners will feel empowered by the system that is supposed to protect them. They should encourage students to file complaints as needed and provide the reassurance of support. In doing so, their students get to focus on what should truly matter—their grades and their future.