STUDENTS’ RIGHTS: School Discipline - a "Know Your Rights" pamphlet circulated by The ACLU of Rhode Island.


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years

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'STUDENTS’ RIGHTS: School Discipline' Pamphlet

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A Guide for Students and Parents

When you go to school, you have an obligation to obey your school’s written rules. When a student violates school rules or policies, consequences can range from a warning to a long-term suspension. However, there are some limits on what kinds of conduct the school can ban or regulate, and how you can be punished. School rules must be reasonable and have a logical relationship to the school’s legitimate interests. The school rules must also respect your constitutional rights, including your rights to free speech and due process. This booklet will attempt to answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding school discipline policies in Rhode Island.

For the purposes of this brochure, “at school” can mean many things. Depending on your school district and the conduct at issue, it can mean activity on school grounds, on a school bus, at a school activity or event (even if it is not held on school premises), and even at an “official” school bus stop. Many, but not all, student handbooks include their definition of “school grounds.”

This booklet applies to K-12 public school students in the state of Rhode Island, as private schools are not subject to constitutional restrictions. It is important to know that policies vary greatly from school to school, so you should check your school’s individual policies. Additionally, this booklet is only a general outline of the law. Not every issue of students’ rights is covered, and this publication should not be taken as specific legal advice. If you have additional questions or need legal assistance, you should speak with an attorney or contact the ACLU.

Paper copies of this booklet are available free of charge by calling the ACLU office at (401) 831-7171.


The Basics


Searches, Drugs, Alcohol and Weapons

School Resource Officers and the Police


For Parents

The Basics 

Where can I find my school's discipline policy? 

Discipline policies are usually spelled out in the student handbook, which the school should provide to each student at the beginning of the school year. Many student handbooks are also available online. Every school district must have a written discipline code, so if you can’t find it, ask for a copy.

What are the reasons my school can discipline me? 

The purpose of school rules is to create a safe and effective learning environment for all students. Under Rhode Island law, you can be disciplined for any number of things. Infractions can be related to creating a good learning environment (such as prohibiting bullying or cheating) or related to violations of the law itself (such as banning assault, theft, or the possession of alcohol, illegal drugs, or weapons). 

Are there any restrictions on why or how the school can discipline me? 

Schools are generally limited to disciplining you for activities that take place at school or that directly affect school activities. In recent years, more and more court cases have begun to address, with varying results, the question of the extent to which schools can punish students for off-campus conduct that may have some effect on the school environment. Certain types of discipline, such as corporal punishment (the use of physical disciplinary action such as spanking, hitting or paddling) are illegal in Rhode Island.

Note: Since this brochure was first published, a new law has impacted this information. Rhode Island law (16-2-17.1) now prohibits schools from suspending students out of school unless the student is a demonstrable threat to students, teachers, or administrators, or has repeatedly impeded or interfered with the ability of others to learn and did not respond to other corrective measures. (Information accurate as of July 2016.)

Are there different rules surrounding the disciplining of students with disabilities? 

Everyone is required to follow the same rules at school, but sometimes students with disabilities have additional rights relating to school discipline. School officials are required to follow through with a “manifestation determination” if a child with a disability is facing more than ten days of school suspension within an academic year. This means that it must be determined if the student’s behavior was in any way linked to his or her disability or if the behavior was a result of the school’s failure to implement the student’s individual education plan (IEP). The results of this determination may have an impact on the punishment that can be imposed on the student.

I am not a citizen of the United States. Do I have the same rights as other students in my school? 

Yes. Under the law, you have the right to be enrolled in your local public school regardless of your immigration status, and you have the same rights as other students at your school. For this reason, you can’t be suspended or otherwise punished solely based on your immigration status. In fact, your school cannot ask you for a green card, social security number, or other proof of citizenship in order for you to attend your local public school.

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If my school wants to suspend me, do I get a hearing first? 

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students are guaranteed certain “due process” rights when facing suspension from school, even for short periods of time. If your suspension is for ten days or less, your school must, at the very minimum, inform you of the rule they are accusing you of breaking; provide an explanation of the evidence they have against you, if you request; and offer you an opportunity to tell your side of the story. These minimal rights must be provided to you except in very limited emergency circumstances.

The same Supreme Court decision also mandated that more detailed procedures be followed for longer-term suspensions. In Rhode Island, you must be afforded a formal hearing before any removal from school that would last over ten days. The school must give you reasonable notice of the time and place of the hearing in order to give you an opportunity to prepare. You are allowed to have an attorney or other advocate represent you at your hearing, but you must secure that individual yourself. At this hearing, you have the right to call and cross-examine witnesses and to present your side of the story. Your school is required to provide you with a written transcript of the proceedings and a written copy of their final decision. If you are not satisfied with the decision, further appeals are available. Your student handbook should outline the procedure for appealing a suspension. 

Schools generally do not have to give you a hearing, formal or informal, for minor punishments short of suspension from school, such as when contesting an after-school detention.

I was suspended. Is my school allowed to keep me from attending my graduation ceremony or participating in extra-curricular activities?

Within reason, your school has the right to use exclusion from any extracurricular activities or events, such as athletic games, academic clubs, class trips, prom, or graduation as a disciplinary action. However, they cannot withhold your diploma nor can the punishment be excessive in relation to the offense.

Is my school allowed to transfer me to an alternative, disciplinary school?

Yes. Rhode Island law allows for any student with serious disciplinary infractions (usually offenses involving violence or bringing weapons to school) to be placed in an alternative education program.

Can I be suspended for having too many unexcused absences?

You cannot be suspended for unexcused absences unless the school has given your parent or guardian prior notice of these absences. Schools are also required to schedule a conference and to take appropriate steps to reduce or eliminate these absences before imposing any serious discipline. After too many absences, you may be designated as truant and referred to a local truancy court. The Rhode Island ACLU is currently challenging the legality of the procedures used in these courts, as well as the procedures used by some schools in referring students to the courts. The ACLU has a brochure outlining your rights if you are referred to truancy court, and you and your parents are encouraged to consult it before signing away any rights you have by agreeing to participate in the court.

Note: Since this brochure was published, a new law has been passed that changes this information. Rhode Island law (16-19-1(d)) now prohibits schools from using absenteeism or truancy as the sole basis for suspending a student from school. (Information accurate as of July 2016)

Can I be punished for exercising my right to free speech?

Students retain their right to free speech in the public school setting, but that doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want anytime you want. For example, you can be disciplined for violating a bullying policy that bars students from threatening or repeatedly harassing other students, even if it’s “just words.” On the other hand, a bullying policy that punishes you for causing another student “emotional harm,” a very vague and open-ended standard, probably violates your free speech rights. You are free to express your political views on buttons and T-shirts, but the Supreme Court has approved the discipline of a student who gave an off-color school auditorium speech. In short, many of these issues are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and may not have simple answers. Of course, schools are much more limited in trying to discipline you for comments you make outside the school setting, such as on Facebook or other social media. If you think your free speech rights were violated at school because you were punished for something you said, then you should contact the ACLU or an attorney.

What happens to my right to receive an education if I am suspended for a long period of time?

You are still entitled to receive an education under those circumstances. School districts in Rhode Island are required to adopt a continued education plan for any student who is removed from school for ten days or more.

Can I be permanently expelled from school?

No. Under Rhode Island law, a school does not have the right to formally expel a student. While, as noted above, under some circumstances you can be removed from a particular school setting, the school district has a continuing responsibility to provide you an education in an alternative setting.

Does the school have to tell my parent or guardian that I am being suspended?

Yes. If you are under the age of 18 and are being suspended, your school is required to notify your parents or guardians of your punishment and the reason for your punishment. In order to address families where English is not the primary language, this communication must be conducted in your parents’ or guardians’ primary language.

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Searches, Drugs, Alcohol and Weapons 

When can school officials or police search me in school?

In order to search you or your property, including your backpack or purse, school officials must have “reasonable suspicion” that you have broken a school rule or law. If school officials ask if they can search you or your belongings, you have the right to say no. However, you should never physically resist a search even if you think the search is illegal. If you voluntarily agree to a search even in the absence of reasonable suspicion, any evidence found on you can probably be used against you in either disciplinary or criminal proceedings.

Police have less freedom than school officials when it comes to searching you. The police generally need “probable cause” or a warrant in order to search you or your belongings. However, if the police deem the situation an emergency, then they may be able to search you without a warrant. If the police say they have a warrant, they must show it to you.

Can school officials search my locker without my consent?

Because school officials tend to view lockers as school property, it is unclear whether they need “reasonable suspicion” in order to search your locker, especially if you have been given advance notice of the school’s policy and they allow you to be there during the search. But such searches still cannot be performed in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

Is the school allowed to bring in drug-sniffing dogs?

Over the years, some schools have collaborated with local police departments to bring drug-sniffing dogs to school. The ACLU strongly opposes this practice for many reasons (they are ineffective and they don’t belong in a school environment, among other things). However, courts have generally allowed this practice to the extent that the dogs are used to search school property, such as school lockers. Nevertheless, if police were to use drug dogs to sniff students, this would likely be considered a violation of your privacy rights.

But what is "reasonable suspicion?" 

Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of “reasonable suspicion.” However, we can say that “reasonable suspicion” must be based on facts and not merely on rumors, hunches, or curiosity. “Probable cause,” another term that is very difficult to define, is a higher standard than “reasonable suspicion.”

Can my school make me take a urine test for drugs or a breathalyzer test for alcohol? 

It depends. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that schools can require students participating in extracurricular activities to submit to drug tests. The decision met with a lot of opposition and, as far as we are aware, public school districts in Rhode Island have shunned the practice, which essentially penalizes those students participating in extra-curricular activities. However, a number of school districts have begun using breathalyzers on students attending school dances or similar outside activities. While, like drug testing, this practice is probably not illegal when confined to those situations, any breathalyzer testing must be conducted by the school in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Additional legal questions would arise if the testing is conducted by, or in conjunction with, police officers. In any event, drug or alcohol testing outside of voluntary extra-curricular activities would almost certainly be a violation of your rights. If you think you were unfairly singled out or if you think a drug or alcohol test was administered improperly, you should contact the ACLU or an attorney.

Can schools have "zero tolerance" policies for drugs and weapons? 

For a number of years, many public schools imposed “zero tolerance” policies that resulted in automatic suspensions for specified periods of time for violating school alcohol, drug and weapons policies. However, this “one size fits all” process that failed to take individual circumstances into account was of great concern to many. Furthermore, there is no evidence that “zero tolerance” policies make schools safer or improve student behavior. In 2006, the state legislature passed a law barring mandatory “zero tolerance” penalties, instead requiring that each case be examined individually.

Can bans on weapons and drugs include such innocent things as plastic knives or giving a friend a cough drop? 

In Rhode Island, the ACLU has successfully challenged a number of overbroad anti-drug and anti-weapons school policies. In 1999, for example, the ACLU successfully overturned a ten day suspension of two first grade students for having brought a toy ray gun to school. In another case, the Commissioner of Education overturned the suspension of a child for bringing a plastic knife to school for his lunch. The ACLU also finds problematic any policies banning unapproved student possession of aspirin, antacids, or other over the counter medications. If you think you were unfairly disciplined under such a policy, you should consult with the ACLU or a private attorney.

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School Resource Officers and the Police

Is a school resource officer the same as a police officer or does he work for the school's administration?

School resource officers, sometimes called SROs, are usually police officers who work full-time or part-time at school. However, their responsibilities and authority vary greatly among school districts and even among individual schools. In addition to playing a security role, SROs may give talks in classes, monitor the lunch room and study hall, or carry out other tasks assigned by the principal. Because they generally work directly for their police department, not the school system, and are able to exercise police powers, the ACLU believes that SROs should legally be treated as police officers, not as school officials, when it comes to determining their authority to conduct searches or interrogations of students.

Do I have to answer if a school official or a police officer questions me about criminal activity?

You should first remember that anything you say to school officials can then be given to the police and used in criminal proceedings against you. If a school official is questioning you about any matter that could also be a crime, you have the right to request that your parent or guardian be called. Even if the school official is annoyed by the delay, politely tell him or her that you would like a trusted adult’s advice before continuing your conversation. Unlike the police, school officials are not required to read you your “Miranda rights” if they question you about possible criminal activity.

If you are in the eighth grade or lower, Rhode Island law requires that your school principal get oral consent from your parent or guardian before law enforcement officers can question you. If the school administration can’t reach your parent or guardian after an hour, the law says that you can choose a school official of your choosing to be there while they question you. But even if someone is there with you, you don’t have to answer any questions by the police.

If you are in the ninth grade or higher and under the age of 18, you directly have the right to request that a parent, guardian or other adult family member be present when you are being questioned by the police. If after an hour the school administration cannot reach an adult of your choosing or if the adult can’t be present, you have the right to have a school official of your choice be present at your questioning. 

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Can I get disciplinary actions cleared from my permanent record?

Every student has a record that may include grades, teacher evaluations, medical records, disciplinary reports, attendance records, behavior reports, and standardized testing results. A federal law, called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or “FERPA,” grants you (if you are 18 or over) or your parents access to these records. Rhode Island has a similar statute. You have the right to request changes to your records, or their removal, if they are inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of your privacy. This includes your right to request that any inappropriate disciplinary components of your record be expunged. You should put this request in writing and keep a copy of it for yourself. Even if the records are not changed at your request, the law requires that the school allow you to enclose a written statement commenting on any contested portions of your record.

Who can access my student records?

Depending on your age, either you or your parents (or guardian) have the right to access your student records. Schools must grant access within ten days of that request, but may charge up to 15 cents per page for copying the records.

Generally, your records are private, and schools must get permission from your parent or guardian if they want to share your records with anyone outside of the school district. However, FERPA contains a number of exceptions to this requirement. For instance, the school doesn’t need to get your consent to share your records with other relevant school officials, to another school system or college where you plan to enroll, or to law enforcement under certain limited situations. 

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For Parents

What should I do if my child is facing school discipline and I don't agree with it?

There are several reasons a parent may not agree with his or her child’s school discipline. You may think your child is innocent, that your child was not given his or her appropriate due process rights, that the punishment is unfair or inappropriate, that the school rule at issue is unconstitutional, or that your child was unfairly singled out for disciplinary action. You have the right to appeal disciplinary actions you disagree with, and your child’s student handbook should outline the procedure for doing so.

If you decide to file an appeal, there are a few immediate steps you should take. First, you should gather all relevant information regarding your child’s situation, including both your child’s side of the story and the school’s version. You should also take careful notes of all meetings or conversations with school administrators, keep copies of letters or emails from and to the school, document a timeline of events, and secure a copy of the rule your child is accused of breaking, the evidence against him or her and the procedures for filing your appeal.

If my child is suspended, what can I do to keep him or her up to date with school work?

If it is a short-term suspension, then you should be sure to communicate with the school’s administration and with your child’s teachers about getting your child’s make up assignments and tests so that your child does not fall behind. If your child is given a long-term suspension, the school is responsible for arranging another way to continue your child’s education outside the classroom, which may include an alternative school or community-based program.

Should I get my child an attorney?

Without knowing the particulars of any individual case, it is hard to determine whether an attorney should be consulted. A general rule, however, is that if there is any reason to believe the police are involved, or may become involved, with a school discipline issue, you should get in touch with an attorney as soon as you can. An attorney can help protect your child’s rights and will be the most knowledgeable about developing a legal strategy to address the situation.

If you decide to get an attorney for a suspension hearing, this must be done at your own expense. Non-attorney advocates, such as counselors, psychologists, or retired educators, and parent support organizations are an alternative resource that may be able to speak with you about your child’s rights.

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The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to upholding and protecting the rights and freedoms guarenteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Founded in the 1920s by a small group of devoted civil libertarians, today the ALCU is comprised of more than 500,000 members and more than fifty affiliates and chapters nationwide.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Rhode Island is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the civil liberties guarentees found in the Bill of Rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, privacy, due process and equal protection of the laws.

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