A Look at Student Rights and What They Mean for Educators

Students are the focus of school operations, but they are also the most vulnerable population within school districts. Students are minors, which gives them the least legal independence of any school population, and also means they require the most protection from outside authorities. However, the rights of a student as an individual can also cause tension when butted against the rights a district, or a teacher, does or does not have to impose rules and regulations on a student’s day.

School dress code is an ongoing issue in American schools, and one that often poses a conflict between a student’s rights and the school district’s policies. Many schools have dress codes that prohibit wearing certain types of clothing to school. Inappropriate garments may include tank tops or tube tops, low-riding, hip-hugging pants, Capri pants, overalls, pajama tops or bottoms, sweatpants, shirts with slogans or offensive illustrations, athletic jerseys, hats, and hooded sweatshirts, to name a few.

To avoid problems pertaining to dress codes, many school districts have introduced school uniforms. New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami, and Los Angeles currently have school districts with uniform policies. As might be expected, requirements to wear school uniforms have not been well received by many students, and in several cases students sued school authorities over this issue. Some students view the imposition of uniforms as an abridgement of their First Amendment rights to free expression, as in Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, Breen v. Kahl, and Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board. In each of these cases, the judge asserted the school districts’ right to create and enforce a school uniform policy.

Zero-tolerance policies have won favor from certain sectors of society and have been praised for bringing greater order and discipline to schools. These polices have also faced a degree of criticism. Recently there have been a number of highly publicized incidents, including one where a second grader was suspended by school authorities for biting his pop tart into the shape of a gun. Incidents such as these have led the public to question the wisdom of the policy, particularly when decisions based on zero-tolerance policies have severed students’ rights to access to an education for seemingly frivolous infractions. It has been suggested that school policy should never substitute for an educator’s common sense when dealing with students.

Disciplinary problems have posed the greatest nuisance for school authorities since the establishment of education outside of the home. The problem has escalated recently, with issues like teen dropouts, drug abuse, and the rise of school violence. These issues require schools to be on their guard at all times, and to implement stricter rules for management. School authorities and staffs must also keep in mind that certain students are more demanding (physically, psychologically, or both) and might need special attention and care.

Schools are, however, not powerless in the face of student misbehavior and have several disciplinary alternatives provided by law. These include in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, or expulsion. The degree of punishment in all three alternatives varies. Schools can deliver punishment that is appropriate for the severity of the misbehavior, to maintain a safe learning environment. Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, published by the U.S. Department of Education, is helpful to both school authorities and students for understanding the legal issues involved in dealing with behaviors believed to be disruptive to safe learning environments and those likely to attract some type of reprimand.

To learn more about the rights of students and how that affects your authority as an educator, check out our other articles on the topics of today’s students and their legal standing.

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