Students in American schools have constitutional rights. It is true that there are areas where their rights are not as protected as those of adults, but the courts have laid out substantial, protectable rights in many areas. Students generally have the right to a safe, free, appropriate education.
Here are six areas where students’ rights are protected:
Free speech: In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students have the right to free speech and expression, as long as they aren’t disruptive to school activities. This freedom has been held to include the right to wear clothing that states a political opinion, along with the right to protest at school.
Freedom of expression: Many schools have dress codes, but students do have the right to express themselves through their clothing. All too often, dress codes are used to force students to conform to gender stereotypes or to keep quiet about their beliefs. Some dress codes punish African-Americans for wearing natural or protective hairstyles. Others prohibit religious dress and symbols. In order to prohibit certain types of dress, the school must show that the dress would be disruptive to school activities.
LGBT freedoms: Although the law continues to change in this area, several federal courts have ruled that public schools must provide a safe learning environment for sexual minorities. This may mean allowing a transgender person to use the bathroom appropriate to their gender identity. It almost certainly means that schools must take effective steps to stop bullying of LGBT students and to prevent a hostile educational environment. They must allow LGBT clubs on the same terms as other clubs.
Immigrant rights: It is illegal for schools to discriminate based on race, color, national origin or undocumented status. Moreover, kids with limited English proficiency must be provided with language instruction.
Disability rights: Students with disabilities have the right to a free, appropriate education on the same terms as other students. Schools can’t deny them equal access to any aspect of school, including coursework, field trips, extracurricular activities and other services provided by the school. They must also make appropriate medical accommodations, prevent bullying, and train staff on how to comply with state and federal disability laws.
Pregnancy rights: Gender-based discrimination is illegal under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Courts have read this to mean that students who are pregnant or who have children must be granted the same educational access as other students. They also have medical privacy rights.
Educational discrimination of any kind robs students of their potential. It cannot be tolerated. If you believe you are facing discrimination at school, contact an attorney experienced in civil rights or education law.