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The Government Center: Knowing Your Rights and Responsibilities

Knowing Your Rights in School

Since most teens spend a ton of time in school, it makes sense to spend a lot of that time thinking about your rights in school, don’t you think? Well, like everything else, your rights at school depend on a lot of things and change from state to state. That’s why it’s tough to make many general statements about your rights in school. There are some things that cross all state lines, though. Three of the them include your right to:

  • Get an education
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Specific supports, help, and education if you have a disability

Right to an Education
Did you know that in the United States, young people have to go to school? That’s right. There’s something called “compulsory attendance,” which is a fancy way of saying that until you reach a certain age it’s illegal for you to not be in school. If you skip school, you can be found truant, which is a legal way of saying you’re not where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there.

In some states you or your parents can get fined, you can get put on probation, and you might even have to spend some time in juvi (juvenile detention). So it’s important to know what your state’s laws are about when you’re supposed to be in school. Lots of states say you have to be in school until you’re 16, but some even go up to 18! This means you should check out what your state’s compulsory attendance laws are. Just because you don’t know the laws doesn’t mean you won’t get in trouble if you break them!

The good news is that because we all have a right to education, schools have a tough time kicking people out forever. They can suspend you if you break the school rules (some schools are more strict about this than others), but they need to have a pretty good case if they want to kick you out completely.

Privacy in School
Did you know that you have a right to privacy and confidentiality in school? There was a law passed in 1974, called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, that said your school record, which includes your grades and lots of other personal information, is a private thing. Until you’re 18, only your parents have access to that information, which means that other people have to have a signed permission form to get any of that stuff from the school.

This is a pretty important right –- the right to keep your private business private. There is some information that’s still public, like your name, address, date of birth, and things like that. It’s a good idea to check this out with your school so you know what they consider public and what they keep private.

There are some situations where your school record becomes public, though, which means that it’s not just between your family and the school. Anything involving the police or law enforcement becomes a public issue. So if you are involved in a fight at school and the police are called in, that’s public information. The police report is open to anyone who wants to read it. Your records can also be requested by the court, which is called a subpoena. If that happens, the school can give the court your information without your permission.

Disability Laws
The most important law protecting the school rights of young people with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It does a whole bunch of good things for kids, but the most important thing is that it guarantees that people with disabilities get the best free public education they can and that their rights and their parents’ rights are protected the whole time.

There’s a federal office that’s in charge of IDEA called the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education. But like so much of the other stuff we’ve been talking about, every state is in charge of putting together its own programs to meet the needs of young people with disabilities. They just have to make sure these programs comply with IDEA.

IDEA also helps young people, parents, and schools know how to go about fixing situations that go wrong in the school setting. That means that if you have a disability and things aren’t going well for you in school (like maybe you need an accommodation you don’t have right now, or you’re not sure that your rights are being protected), IDEA can help you get the right information and keep your school on-track. That includes things like evaluating people for disabilities, making an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and even making sure you can be involved in extracurricular activities (like sports and clubs).

There’s so much to learn about IDEA, and a lot of it’s pretty complicated. But that’s why we have teachers, caseworkers, parents, and other adults around, right? You can always use them to help get answers to your questions.

One of the very best places to learn more specifics about your rights is this book:

Truly, T. (2002). Teen rights: A legal guide for teens and the adults in their
Naperville, IL: Sphinx Publishing.

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Last updated on December 5, 2018

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