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Discipline and Punishment: Constitutional Rights of Students

Students have rights that need protection. School principals, assistant principals, and other school officials must enforce discipline policies. Rules help to maintain a safe, functional learning environment. School officials might also need to involve law enforcement when criminal activity occurs. Yet disciplinary tactics should never violate a student's rights.

This article explains students' civil rights, which are provided by the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and state laws.

Students' Constitutional Rights: At a Glance

Various laws protect the rights of students in public schools. One vital provision is the First Amendment, which secures students' free speech rights. Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school gate. But school administrators have the authority to limit these rights. If they have reason to expect disruption of school activities or infringement of others' rights, they can take action.

Local school boards typically create and enforce codes of student conduct. Codes that outline expectations for students are usually distributed at the beginning of the school year. The code outlines rules relating to students' behavior and responsibilities on school property.

Sometimes, the code addresses digital communications. It may require students to act respectfully via text messages and social networking websites. Students who don't may face disciplinary action for cyberbullying.

School boards design these codes to promote school safety. They also explain potential school discipline procedures for any violations.

Disciplinary proceedings in schools also generally fall under the protection of constitutional rights. Students have due process rights when accused of an infraction or misbehavior that could lead to suspension or expulsion. This means school district officials must notify students of the charges against them. They must allow an accused student to present their side of the story before a hearing officer. For example, excessive absences alone should not lead to expulsion without a due process hearing.

Students' Constitutional Rights: Selected Cases

Teachers face a tough job. They must deal with challenging students and respect their rights, such as privacy and fair treatment. When police get involved, or a student's education is affected, the conflict might head to court. A common question is how the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to students.

A critical court decision involving students' rights was Goss v. Lopez (1975), which began with an Ohio public high schooler's suspension. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that suspending students without a hearing violated their due process rights.

Six years earlier, the court had ruled on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). The case addressed students wearing armbands protesting the Vietnam War. Ultimately, the court decided that the First Amendment protected such speech. Saying the form of self-expression in question is quiet and passive, the court ruled it free speech.

New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) considered students' rights to privacy, when searches are reasonable, and specific rules about Miranda rights. This case involved a young student suspected of smoking in school. When officials searched her purse, they found cigarettes, rolling paper, a bag of hashish, and file cards that seemed to be records of drug sales. The Supreme Court had to weigh the student's right to privacy against the school's need to keep order. The court agreed with administrators that the search was not unreasonable because schools must be able to maintain discipline for learning to happen.

In the 1985 case In re William G., the California Supreme Court ruled that all students have the right to protection from dangerous items or substances in school. The court held that schools should provide an environment where learning can happen. It said they should balance that setting with students' privacy rights.

Courts often have to find a balance between opposing claims or rights. In two cases, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) and Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that student safety is more important than student rights. These cases and others help to shape our understanding of the law as it applies to changing situations. They point to the need to strike a balance between students' rights and overall student safety and learning environment.

Columbine and Its Aftermath: Zero Tolerance

The sad reality of school shootings in America has altered policies and created new questions. The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and a seemingly endless list of others have led many schools to adopt zero tolerance policies. These policies broadly prohibit drug use, weapons, and violence on campuses. These school policies sometimes extend to off-campus activities, too.

However, critics argue that zero tolerance policies could infringe on students' constitutional rights. Critics also say they often lead to harsh penalties for relatively minor or nonviolent infractions.

Tragedies in schools across the nation have led to calls for more reactive security measures and precautions. "Zero tolerance" initially referred to students bringing weapons to school. The push for zero tolerance fueled provisions for suspension and expulsion. Proponents of more stringent codes point to the staggering fact that gun deaths among U.S. children and teens rose 50% between 2019 and 2021.

At the end of the 20th century, administrators across the country started doing body and bag searches at school entrances. Many enforced stricter dress codes, and some even began randomly testing students for drugs. However, many decried these measures as overly harsh and not conducive to making students feel safe and supported.

Many student advocates now suggest tactics that aim to educate and counsel offenders. Some urge restorative justice rather than punishments that may raise the odds a student will drop out of school.

Student Rights and School Policies

Searches by school authorities are another area of constitutional concern. The Fourth Amendment protects students against unreasonable searches and seizures. But if school officials have reasonable suspicion of violations of school rules or laws, they can search a student's belongings without permission or a warrant. Moreover, First Amendment rights extend to the publication of student newspapers. They also apply to participation in school-sponsored activities. However, schools can regulate lewd or disruptive speech in the educational process.

Students With Disabilities

Students with disabilities also have specific rights under federal law. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) details these rights. The school district must provide such students with a free and appropriate public education tailored to their needs. This may mean enrollment in a special education program. Districts should create an individualized education program (IEP) for any student with disabilities.

If state law permits corporal punishment, schools cannot use it in a way that violates the rights of students with disabilities.

Did Someone Violate Your Constitutional Rights as a Student? Seek Legal Help

When public school students believe their constitutional rights have been violated, they can seek help. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fights to defend rights nationwide. In addition to major organizational operations in New York and Washington, D.C., the ACLU has affiliate chapters around the nation. The U.S. Department of Education and your local board of education can also offer some guidance on students' rights and procedures.

You may need to seek legal advice from someone who specializes in education law. Whether your child is in elementary school, secondary school, or high school, they have rights. Student discipline can only go so far without violating the law. Get help from an education law attorney near you today.

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