As students in North Dakota get back to school, parents and caregivers must ensure their children are equipped with various school supplies amongst everything else they'll need to start the school year.
Yet with all of this prep, most overlook sending students back to school with a firm, or even general understanding of their Constitutional rights as students. Classrooms may provide a basic knowledge of history, math, and other courses, they too often overlook educating students on their basic rights once the first bell rings.
Constitutional rights apply to minors as well as adults. See below for some major cases from the Supreme Court of the United States.
Notable Cases in Students' Rights
New Jersey v. TLO (1984)
The Supreme Court acknowledged Fourth Amendment's restrictions on unreasonable searches and seizure covered public school teachers. It relaxed the usual Fourth Amendment requirements of probable cause and a warrant. The unique circumstances of educating students allow for a search based on reasonable suspicion only, a much lower standard.
Bethel School v. Fraser (1986)
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the suspension of a student for vulgarity during a school assembly, saying one of the functions of a public school is to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms during classroom discussions or during school assemblies. Under some circumstances, student speech can be restricted without violating the First Amendment.
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
The court ruled that school officials must have authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might “reasonably” be perceived to advocate the use of drugs, alcohol, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with shared “values of civilized authority.” The court also ruled that schools may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored activities. The court cautioned that the ruling only applies to materials that have a “valid educational purpose.”
Morse v. Frederick (2007)
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the suspension of a student with a sign saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" noting that school officials may restrict a student’s speech at school-sponsored events when the speech can be reasonably viewed as promoting the use of illegal drugs, even when those expressions take place at a school-sponsored event off campus.
Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009)
The court applied its reasonable suspicion test to a search of a student which involved looking inside her bra and underwear. The court held this sort of search was only reasonable if there was specific evidence pointing to hidden contraband in these places.
JDB v. North Carolina (2011)
Citing the fifth amendment, the court required notification of an individual’s Miranda warnings prior to questioning when in custody. The court suggested that what counts as custody for minors, including school students, is assessed from the student's perspective; whether a reasonable student of the same age and characteristics of the student would feel free to leave, not what a police officer or principal might think.
These cases (and many more) have codified rights specifically for students as well as shown how Constitutional principles can be applied directly to youth in schools.
So how can your student apply these rulings in their school? Make sure they go to school knowing their individual rights.
Know Your Rights as Students
The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." This is true for other fundamental rights, as well.
Send your child to school with this list of their rights:
You have the right to an education.
You have the right to know what's in your school's code of conduct.
You have a right to be heard. In most cases, you have the right to tell your understanding of events before receiving an out-of-school suspension.
You have the right to refuse to sign anything. If you're given a written statement to sign, you don't have to do it -- know that any written statement can be turned over to law enforcement.
- You have a right to stay silent. When being questioned by school staff or law enforcement, you are not obligated to talk if you don't want to -- any verbal statement you make can be turned over to law enforcement.
- You have the right to call your parent or guardian. If you're taken into custody, you can call your parent or guardian so they know where you are and what's happened -- you aren't alone.
- You have a right to an attorney. If you're taken into custody and can't leave, you have a right to legal representation before being questioned.
- You have a right to refuse searches. If school staff or law enforcement asks if they can search your person or your property, you can say no -- "I do not consent to any search" is a legally binding refusal.
- You have the right to appeal. If you're facing an out-of-school suspension that lasts for 10 or more days, you have the right to appeal the decision.
The rights of immigrant students
- Schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
- Undocumented children cannot be denied their right to a free public education, and schools should not require families to prove their immigration status in order to enroll their children in school.
- Students with limited English proficiency cannot be turned away by public schools, which must provide them with language instruction.
The rights of students with disabilities
- 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.
- Educators and administrators must make necessary academic and medical accommodations, ensure equal access to educational activities and opportunities, and respond to harassment and bullying.
LGBTQ student rights
- LGBTQ students have a right to be who they are and express themselves in public schools.
- Public schools should not “out” students to their families.
- Public schools have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment. They cannot ignore harassment based on a student’s appearance or behavior. Students should report harassment or threats to a principal or counselor. This puts the school on notice that officials can be held legally responsible for not protecting students.
- Public schools cannot force students to wear clothing inconsistent with their gender identity.
- If a public school permits any noncurricular clubs — clubs that aren’t directly related to classes taught in the school — then it must allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance or other LGBTQ-themed clubs, and the school can’t treat it differently from other noncurricular clubs.
- Students’ transgender status and gender assigned at birth are confidential information protected by federal privacy law. If your school reveals that information to anyone without your permission, it could be violating federal law. If you don’t want school officials revealing your private information to others, including your legal name, tell them very clearly that you want your information kept private and that they should not disclose that information to anyone without your consent.
- Some states and cities explicitly protect the right of transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Additionally, several courts have ruled that excluding transgender boys and girls from using the same restrooms as other boys and girls violates federal education law. This is an area of the law that is changing a great deal right now. We recommend that you contact the ACLU if you have any questions about your rights at school.
This mobile-friendly information is available in a more in-depth and printable format at aclu.org.
All students should feel confident by knowing their individual rights. While educators provides knowledge and guidance, it is up to families and communities to prepare students to be the next generation of change makers.