Part of POK’s mission is to preserve the rights of students, parents and teachers engaged with the public schools. The United States Constitution guarantees certain “unalienable” rights that are not lost at the schoolhouse door. Chief among these are rights are those spelled out in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Practically, this means that schools cannot impose a particular religion, orthodoxy, or belief system upon children. This applies to any orthodoxy including those that relate to sex, gender, or critical race theory. When it comes to beliefs, schools must be “viewpoint neutral.” Teachers are prohibited from making fun of or disparaging a student’s personal beliefs. Teachers cannot give assignments that restrict or penalize a student’s religious beliefs. Neither can they be forced to advance a particular belief system.
As the 6th Circuit ruled recently in a case where a University tried to force one its professors to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun in the classroom: “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.” “[T]he Founders of this Nation . . . ‘believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.”
Indeed, as the Supreme Court has famously ruled:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia v. Barnette (1943)
Minors also have freedom of speech, which means that they can respectfully express their beliefs on school campuses without fear of retribution or retaliation. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” (Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969)) Students are also free to bring Bibles or other religious materials to school for use during their free time.
The Fourteenth Amendment. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As applied by the Supreme Court, this means that students and parents of children in the public cannot be treated arbitrarily. Schools must follow the law regarding processes and disputes and treat all students equally. Neither can schools discriminate against students or parents based on factors like sex, race, or religious beliefs.
Statutes. These are laws passed by federal or state legislatures that can also serve to protect student and parent rights. Examples are “notice” provisions which require schools to inform parents when controversial subjects are going to be taught; “right to inspect“ provisions that give parents the ability to review school curriculums; “hearing” provisions that give parents the right to express themselves at official school (board) meetings or when there’s a dispute of some kind.
Od course, rights must be asserted to be of any value. Like a muscle, they are weakened without use. It’s up to all of us to monitor legal violations in the school system and be ready to challenge them. In most cases, problems can be handled without the involvement of legal professionals. In some instances, however, legal help is warranted and even necessary. Even then, disputes are usually resolved out of court. Only the rarest of incidents require court action.
What to look out for. Not all offenses are reportable, but you should be on the alert for the following kinds of school related circumstances:
- Patently offensive teaching materials and/or curriculums that contain pornographic, racist, or discriminatory content.
- Classroom instruction and/or teaching materials that promote a particular worldview, orthodoxy, belief system or religion.
- Acts of coercion by public-school administrators regarding class instruction or assignments that endorse a particular worldview, orthodoxy, belief system or religion.
- Teachers and/or public-school officials failing to follow the law. Examples include failure to provide legal notice to parents or refusing parents the right to inspect teaching materials.
- Other acts or omissions from teaching professionals that you sense are illegal and/or inappropriate. POK is very interested to learn about what curriculums are being in school districts for subjects like:
- Sex & Gender Theory / Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)
- Critical Race Theory (CRT) / Historical Revisionism (HR)
- Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
What to do now! While POK does not provide legal services, we have relationships with public-interest law firms that do specialize in handling student and parental rights issues. If you suspect a rights violation, we recommend the following actions:
- Carefully document the violation. Take careful and contemporaneous notes about the “what, who, when, where, and how” of the facts you believe led to the violation. Make and keep copies of any relevant correspondence, emails, letters, texts, photos, videos and anything else that could be used as evidence. Download and save as PDF files any content on the internet that may disappear. Download and/or record videos; be aware, however, that states have different legal requirements for recoding conversations. Take screen shots of content that you cannot download. Keep these records in a secure folder.
- Fill out our Incident Report. We will review your story, and if we believe it has merit will work with you to identify the appropriate legal resource to help.