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Student Rights in Private Schools

by webmaster last modified 2006-10-30 09:16 PM

Are you a student in a private school? If so, you most likely have fewer rights than students in public schools (you can thank your parents now or later). The US Constitution doesn't apply to you, but instead there is a contract between your parents and the school that largely determines what rights you might have.

First, a student in a private school who has been sent there by his public school district (and is therefore not there by choice) may have Constitutionally protected rights, but not necessarily--a case in Maine where a student was suspended by a private school he had been sent to by his district since it had no public school was decided against the student, whereas a second case involving a student with disability dismissed by a private school resulted in an "administrative law judge decision that the private school ... was required to provide the same rights and protections to a student placed there by his public school district, as he would receive if educated in the public school district."

On the other hand, private school students who are there by choice (theirs or their parents) appear to have no federally protected constitutional rights.  Private school students may have rights guaranteed by the constitution or statute of the state where the school is located--California, for example, has a law protecting free expression at secular private as well as public schools. In any case, there exists a contract between the parents and the private school that largely determines the student's rights. The rights of private school students rest mainly upon express and implied terms and conditions of their enrollment, as outlined in various documents such as school handbooks, codes of conduct, etc. For example, the student handbook of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH (on-line here) states that "when at home, day students are under the supervision of their parents." Hence, the off-campus activities and speech (including web sites and Internet conversations) of day students at this particular school should not be subject to discipline by the school, but would instead fall under the authority of parents (and of course civil authorities if any laws were broken). More information on the electronic speech of private school students is available at Student Off-Campus Computer Use.

A student at a Christian private school in Florida was expelled in 2003 simply for admitting that he was gay. Of course, this could never happen in any public school where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not legally permitted.  A "breach of contract" lawsuit was filed, and the student may have a case as the student handbook only cites bringing a weapon to school, threatening a teacher, student or administrator,  and committing a felony as grounds for automatic expulsion. 

Although your legally enforceable rights as a private school student may be limited, you should remember that private schools generally wish to project an image as nurturing, supportive places where students are treated with fairness and respect. It's therefore not in their best interest to treat students badly or in a manner that reflects poorly upon the school, although they certainly have the legal latitude to do so.

Private schools are not without controversy.  Here are a few examples:

The Groton School -- Allegations of sexual misconduct were apparently downplayed, but the school was indicted and eventually pled guilty to not reporting the incidents, and a civil suit is still pending.

Phillips Andover Academy -- This prestigious private school in Andover, MA tried to retain ownership of stolen property, but eventually returned it to its rightful owner.

Phillips Exeter Academy -- That other "Phillips Academy" in Exeter, NH, was rocked by scandal when in 1992 the Chairman of the Drama Department was alleged to have been seducing boys and making pornographic videos. He was convicted later that same year.

St. Paul's School -- Controversy over financial issues, including an annual compensation of more than $527,000 for the Episopal Bishop serving as rector, caused major changes at this well-known New Hampshire private school.


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