Student Legal Rights

When deciding to participate in a political protest like the #NationalSchoolWalkout, it is important to be fully aware of the potential consequences you might face and of your rights as a student.

For example, schools may take disciplinary action against students that miss class, even if the reason for that absence is related to a student’s expression of free speech. However, a school’s disciplinary actions, if any, cannot take into account the content or viewpoints being expressed through the walkout. This means that schools cannot impose harsher punishments on students that miss class as a form of political expression than they would impose on students that miss class for any other reason. Check out an article the ACLU wrote on this subject here.

Most jurisdictions also have truancy laws in place that require certain students to attend school. These laws vary but they may subject students to punishment depending on, among other things, the students’ age and the number of days of school that they have missed.

Disciplinary reactions to the walkout will likely vary from school to school and district to district. As you organize your local walkout, get to know the rules your school and district have in place regarding class absences and plan accordingly. Consider reaching out to your school’s administration to discuss potential disciplinary issues ahead of time as part of your planning process. They may be lenient if you explain to them that the walkout is a safe and peaceful way for students to express themselves, and it encourages civic engagement, which has been low among young people for years.

In the event that schools or jurisdictions take punitive measures against students for participating in the walkout, many colleges and universities have publicly stated that they will not count such disciplinary marks against students as part of their college admissions process.

Beyond concerns about missing class, do not forget that your First Amendment rights still apply when you are engaging in political expression on school grounds. The Supreme Court has said that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 502, 506 (1969).
. But the Supreme Court has also indicated that schools may limit student speech that realistically threatens to disrupt (“materially and substantially interfere” with) regular school function. But determining what qualifies as sufficiently disruptive to warrant school action depends heavily on the specific circumstances at play. In light of these factors, you may want to consult with your school’s administration to clarify its policies regarding student expression on school grounds and protections for students’ free speech rights.