Student Rights at Schools: Six Things You Need to Know


By Brian Tashman

You don’t shed your rights at the schoolhouse gate.

While the Constitution protects the rights of students at school, many school officials are unaware of students’ legal protections, or simply ignore them.

When heading back to school this year, make sure to know your rights and ensure that your school treats every student fairly and equally. The ACLU has a long tradition of fighting to protect students’ rights, and is always ready to speak with you on a confidential basis. If you believe that your rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to contact your local ACLU affiliate.

Here are six things you need to know about your rights at school:

  1. Speech rights

In the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the ACLU successfully challenged a school district’s decision to suspend three students for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The court declared that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The First Amendment ensures that students cannot be punished for exercising free speech rights, even if school administrators don’t approve of what they are saying. Unfortunately, where legal protections are weak, schools are threatening student’s speech – and their privacy – by requiring them to reveal the contents of their social media accounts, cell phones, laptops, and other personal technologies. The ACLU is fighting for new state laws around the country that would provide stronger student privacy protections.

Over the years, the ACLU has successfully defended the right of students to wear an anti-abortion armband, a pro-LGBT t-shirt, and shirts critical of political figures. The ACLU has even defended the rights of high school students who wanted to protest the ACLU.

Contact the ACLU if you believe your school is trying to limit your First Amendment rights.

  1. Dress codes

While schools are allowed to establish dress codes, students have a right to express themselves.

Dress codes are all too often used to target and shame girls, force students to conform to gender stereotypes and punish students who wear political and countercultural messages. Such policies can be used as cover for racial discrimination, by targeting students of color over supposed “gang” symbols or punishing students for wearing natural hairstyles and hair extensions. Dress codes can also infringe on a student’s religious rights by barring rosaries, headscarves and other religious symbols.

Schools must make the case that a certain kind of dress is disruptive to school activities. They cannot use dress codes to punish girls, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming students and free speech.

If you are told to comply with a dress code that you believe is discriminatory, contact the ACLU. Complying with the dress code will not prevent you from challenging it at a later date.

  1. Immigrant rights

Schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, national origin. Undocumented children cannot be denied their right to a free public education, but some schools continue to create exclusionary policies. Last year, the ACLU sued several school districts for requiring families to prove their immigration status in order to enroll their children in school.

Students with limited English proficiency cannot be turned away by schools, which must provide them with language instruction.

Contact the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project if you have observed or experienced discrimination based on immigration status or national origin in school.

  1. Disability rights

Public schools are prohibited by federal law from discriminating against people with disabilities, and cannot deny them equal access to academic courses, field trips, extracurricular activities, school technology, and health services.

Sometimes, educators and administrators discriminate by refusing to make necessary medical accommodations, restricting access to educational activities and opportunities, ignoring harassment and bullying, and failing to train staff on compliance with state and federal laws.

Schools have a duty to defend students with disabilities from bullying and biased treatment, and the ACLU is working to ensure that the rights of these students are protected.

  1. LGBT rights

Bullying of LGBT students can be pervasive at schools, and is all too often ignored or encouraged by the schools themselves. LGBT students have a right to be who they are and express themselves at school. Students have a right to be out of the closet at school, and schools cannot skirt their responsibility to create a safe learning environment and address incidents of harassment.

Public schools are not allowed to threaten to “out” students to their families, overlook bullying, force students to wear clothing inconsistent with their gender identity or bar LGBT-themed clubs or attire. Transgender and gender non-conforming students often face hostile environments in which school officials refuse to refer to students by their preferred gender pronouns or provide access to appropriate bathroom and locker room facilities.

If you find that your school is undermining your rights, contact your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project. Be sure to report incidents of bullying or bias to a school principal or counselor and remember to keep detailed notes of your interactions with officials and make copies of any paperwork that the school asks you to fill out.

  1. Pregnancy discrimination 

Since Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education, was passed in 1972, schools have been prohibited from excluding pregnant students and students with children. Yet schools often push such students to drop out by making it impossible to complete classwork, preventing them from participating in extracurricular activities, refusing to accommodate schedule adjustments, punishing them with unwarranted disciplinary actions, and pressuring them to transfer or quit school altogether.

Denying these students an education, access to school activities and reasonable accommodations violates their rights. Public schools must ensure that pregnant students have access to the same accommodations that students with temporary medical conditions are given, including the ability to make up missed classwork and learn in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Schools are also not allowed to punish students who choose to terminate a pregnancy or reveal a student’s private medical information.

If you believe that your school is treating you unfairly for being pregnant, ending a pregnancy, or having a child, contact the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

Brian Tashman is a political research and strategist with the ACLU

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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7 thoughts on “Student Rights at Schools: Six Things You Need to Know”

  1. Todd Edelman

    At the CVS at Oaktree Plaza on East Covell, younger teenagers or whoever appears to a Holmes Junior student – really I don’t know the criteria – have to drop their backpacks inside the front door, presumably to prevent shoplifting. As far as I can tell they do it without being asked. No one else seems to be required to do so. I’ve not been in one store in the USA that has a mandatory bag check which only applies the rule to a particular age group. I asked a Holmes parents about it and was told it was not a problem and sometimes the school principal is present on late-start Wednesdays.

  2. Tia Will

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the list of rights,the article has excluded one very important “right”. The right to learn.

    My daughter is a science teacher at a very challenging school in East Palo Alto. Her impression is that there is virtually no imposition of order on the students who by age 11 are freely cursing, talking in class, using their electronics during instruction and groups activities and blatantly challenging her when she attempts to draw their attention back to class. She states that there is also no order during class change periods and students are allowed to scuffle without sanction or consequence with the explanation that to impose order would be “oppressive”. My daughter’s take is that allowing such disrespect for the very reason for attending school is an oppression since not to teach behaviors that will be necessary for higher education, the workplace, or just to succeed socially is in and of itself “oppressive”. A student forced to remain confined in a physical space where no learning is possible because of the misbehavior of others is in and of itself oppressive.

    I would like to see some organization take on the basic right to learn in our public schools.

    1. Karl liebhardt

      Bravo Tia!

      It’s about time. I taught for 2 decades in local schools and often watched a small handful of students who “knew” their rights create the circus atmosphere we often see in schools today. It made me sick to my stomach to see such a travesty for the ones that were actually trying to to learn.  I understand students deserve rights.  Frankly, most of this issue with disruption would go away if the students chose to be there or not. Where would the ones who didn’t choose school go?  That’s an overlapping but separate topic.

    2. Keith O

      Tia Will, I agree with you.

      You do know though that you’re expressing a conservative point of view here.

      Would you be open to having disruptive students who stop others from learning being disciplined up to and including suspension?

  3. Tia Will


    You do know though that you’re expressing a conservative point of view here.”

    I know no such thing. You do not get to politically appropriate something that should be completely non partisan, the goal of an education for each and every student that will optimize their ability to succeed as an adult in the field of their choice. We may have differences of opinion about optimum strategies, but the goal is universal.

    I am as “liberal” as you will find. I don’t divide issues into liberal and conservative to see which side I am on. Issues don’t have to be divided into liberal vs conservative. That attitude does nothing but build unnecessary barriers between people. Each idea should be judged on its own merits.

    I much prefer motivation to discipline ( aka punishment). I believe in separation of those who are disruptive from those who are attempting to learn in the traditional structured setting. I am not a fan of suspension which I see as a form of giving up on a student. I have worked in some very rough settings and have rarely encountered a student who is beyond any motivation to improve even if it would not be the traditional means.


    1. Jim Hoch



      You are swimming upstream here. The tendency is to more include Dangerous and or Disruptive D+D in the mainstream is the trend. Eliminations of suspensions and replacement of all other discipline with RJ is the latest.

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