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Legal issues in public schools

Understanding public school law in K-12 education
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Legal issues in public schools hinge on student safety and student privacy. Schools have a legal obligation to provide all students with a safe, calm learning environment. But sometimes things get complicated when they have to balance students’ rights with this obligation.

Bullying

Bullying is behavior intended to intimidate or harm another student. This behavior can be verbal or physical, and includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • Making offensive remarks about a person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.
  • Spreading explicit pictures or rumors about someone.
  • Wearing clothing or other items meant to intimidate (like gang colors).
  • Physical acts like punching or tripping someone.

Bullying that happens online is called cyberbullying. Cyberbullying usually happens outside of school, but several court rulings suggest schools have the right to punish it in some cases.

Many states have anti-bullying laws that require schools to take bullying seriously. If a school ignores the issue, they may be violating those laws. Depending on the situation, they may also be violating federal laws, like equal protection laws and/or Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Your first step should be make sure the school knows your child is being bullied. If it doesn’t stop, an education lawyer can help you understand your legal options.

Accommodations for students with disabilities

The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) requires that schools create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability. It should cover how to meet the student’s needs in the least restrictive way possible.

Any disability that can affect learning is generally covered, including:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Severely and Profoundly Mentally Retarded (SPMR)
  • Autism
  • Bi-polar disorder

These students are likewise covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 also covers many students with health issues like asthma, diabetes, or seizures. Schools may need to make reasonable accommodations to allow these students to do things like take medications or have an aide in class.

Injuries in school

The concept of “premises liability,” where the owner of a property is responsible for keeping the property safe for visitors, also applies to schools.

Accidents can and do happen—even in safe schools. But if a student gets hurt because the school was negligent, parents can file a claim against the school or school district.

Parents can also hold schools responsible for not taking proper action if a child is being bullied or becomes ill.

Freedom of speech and religion

The US Supreme Court ruled back in 1969 that students don’t leave their right to free speech at the school door. But that doesn’t mean they have unlimited rights to say whatever they want.

Schools can limit students’ right to say or wear things that could be disruptive, including:

  • T-shirts promoting drug use
  • Speech that crosses the line into bullying
  • Sexually explicit speech

For the most part, they can’t limit students’ personal expression of their religion. Also, if the school allows student-interest clubs like chess or environmental clubs, it must also allow others it may not agree with, like religious or LGBTQ clubs.

Codes of conduct and discipline policies

Most schools have written codes of conduct and discipline policies outlining faculty and students’ rights and responsibilities, along with penalties for breaking the rules. Rules can range from a dress code to what students can bring to class.

In most cases, these rules also apply at off-campus school-related events.

But students also have a right to privacy. Teachers can’t arbitrarily search a student’s personal belongings looking for banned items. They must have reason to believe the student has one of these items.

Students also have the right to appeal a punishment, especially if it includes suspension or expulsion.

If you have any questions about legal issues in public schools, or if you need advice about a specific situation in your child’s school, you may want to talk with an attorney experienced in public education law.

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