Have you ever gotten in trouble at school and thought, “Wait a minute, don’t I have rights here?” The U.S. Supreme Court said it best when it ruled that students like you do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Feeling patriotic yet?
As a student, you maintain certain individual rights under the U.S. Constitution at school and at school activities. Federal laws and state laws also protect students. Local school districts must ensure that their school policies protect your civil liberties as well.
What exactly are the rights you have when you’re at school? Stop scrolling social media and take some notes. We’ve got the 411 on your fundamental rights as a student.
First Amendment Right to Free Speech
The Bill of Rights is made up of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (But you knew that already, right?), including the First Amendment.
In 1969, the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech applies to public school students in the case Tinker v. Des Moines. In that case, three students were suspended for wearing black armbands to their high school to protest the war in Vietnam. The court ruled that their demonstration fell under the First Amendment’s free speech protections and established guidelines for determining when student speech is protected.
So, students, as long as your speech, expression, or opinion does not disrupt your education or interfere with the rights of other students, it’s protected.
Fourth Amendment Right to Privacy
Students in public schools have a Fourth Amendment right to privacy that protects them against unreasonable searches and seizures. Outside of school, this Fourth Amendment right usually means police officers can’t conduct a search unless they have probable cause and a warrant. However, because schools have a special need to provide a safe learning environment, it’s easier for a school to justify searching students.
If school administrators want to search you, or if they want to have the school resource officer search you, they must have “reasonable suspicion.” To establish this, your school has to show that:
It has reasonable grounds that the search will produce evidence that you broke a school ruleHow they search you reasonably relates to their purpose and does not excessively intrude upon you
In short, it means the search still must be respectful, and school officials can’t just search students because they feel like it.
14th Amendment Rights
Students in public schools also have 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process of law. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided that all students have an equal right to public education in Brown v. Board of Education. Oh, and fun fact! The plaintiffs in Brown were represented by Thurgood Marshall who would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court justice. Even though the court’s decision at that time was about prohibiting segregation in schools, it continues to protect your rights in different ways today.
Equal Protection Clause
Under the Equal Protection Clause, all students must be treated the same. This means your school can’t discriminate against you based on things like your race and ethnicity. Students are also protected from unequal treatment based on sex via Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (known as Title IX for short).
It’s also important to note that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has interpreted Title IX to prohibit discrimination based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Due Process Clause
The Due Process Clause is basically your constitutional guarantee to receive fair treatment at school. In 1975, the Supreme Court stepped up for students once again. Remember how all students have the right to an education? Well, in Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court extended due process rights to students suspended in public schools. If school officials intend to deprive you of your right to an education, typically by suspension or expulsion, you must receive due process protections. To meet the requirements of due process of law, your school has to:
Provide you with notice of your alleged offense and the proposed punishmentExplain the evidence of your alleged offense to youGive you the opportunity to present your side of the story
If you end up getting suspended or expelled, your school is required to have procedural policies in place that will allow you to appeal punishment to your school district’s superintendent or school board. That means you and your family can hire an attorney who can speak for you as well.
We will expand more on all of these protections in blog posts over the coming weeks! Stay tuned!
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