Three Important Landmarks of Sexuality and Student Rights
How the legal system has dealt with student sexuality has rapidly changed over the years. While the goal at the heart of the rules and regulations around students and their sexual behavior has always been to protect students and keep their learning the central focus of school, how the legal system has gone about doing so has progressed and improved over the years. Three major areas that have seen recent growth include:
1. Pregnant students’ educational access.
In the past, pregnant students were not allowed to attend regular public schools after their pregnancy became obvious. They were denied access to educational institutions because they were believed to be a morally corrupting influence on their peers. In view of the fact that segregation of pregnant girls from their peers hampered their education and constituted a violation of their “right to education,” the law has taken steps to prevent this discrimination. All school rules that prevent pregnant students from attending school, or promote discrimination against them at one level or another, have been quashed by several courts. The judgments passed in several court cases reveal the law’s stand on the issue. In McLeod v. State ex. Rel. Comer, the court ruled that unless students are found to be guilty of immorality, misconduct, or bearing negative impact on other students, they can’t legally be banned from attending school. Several other cases later affirmed the rights of pregnant or married students to attend public schools. The accepted rules and guidelines for pregnant students, married students, or students with children follow:
- All courts have unanimously invalidated rules that prohibited married or pregnant students from attending educational institutions.
- It’s mandatory for schools and colleges to ensure that married or pregnant students have the same rights as other students in school and that no discrimination is practiced against them at any level.
- The right to decision-making on whether or not and when exactly a pregnant student should withdraw from school rests entirely with the student’s physician.
- The law mandates that schools provide homebound instruction for students who withdraw from school due to pregnancy.
- The only conditions under which a school can deny married or pregnant students participation in school activities and events are when their behavior or presence is established to have a disruptive, interfering, or negative influence on the other students.
2. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students.
Recently, the law has come down more strongly in favor of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. For example, a 2012 case in which a school computer system filtered out all search results that might include supportive information on LGBT (though it allowed anti-LGBT results) was decided in favor of the students. The school was forced to remove the discriminatory filter. In a case in 2011 that received national, a graduating student, Ceara Sturgis, decided to wear a tuxedo instead of the traditional “drape” for her yearbook photograph. The school then omitted her photograph entirely from the publication. In November 2011, the school caved, settling the case and revising its policies to be more in line with the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
3. Sexual harassment and discrimination.
The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear as early as 1992 that students who were sexually harassed by school personnel could sue for monetary damages. In Franklin v. Gwinnett, a Georgia high school student alleged that a teacher had sexually harassed her. The Supreme Court upheld the student’s claims and maintained that the practice of supervisors harassing subordinates is unlawful, and that the student–teacher relationship is no different.
Laws that address sexual harassment of one student by a fellow student are also clear. Teachers or schools cannot be held liable for the actions of one of its students, but in some circumstances, schools can still be sued for sexual harassment of one student by another student. A school was held liable in a case where school authorities neglected to inform the harassed student of the right to file a sexual harassment grievance under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and in a case where the school neglected to eliminate the harassment after it had been reported to the school. Although it’s difficult to hold schools liable for student-to-student harassment, ambiguity persists because of the cases where students have been provided with damages in student-to-student harassment lawsuits.
Make sure you’re familiar with the real-time changes happening to student rights and regulations around sexuality and sexual behavior in school. Educators need to stay up-to-date on the latest ways they can support their students and keep school a safe place for them, no matter what.