Students' Rights in Rhode Island

Rhode Island law says that students, teachers and staff have the right to attend or work at a safe school.

Questions & Answers (Accurate as of February 26, 2014)

Harassment and Discrimination at School

Are there any laws protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in Rhode Island?

In 2011, Rhode Island passed the “Safe Schools Act” that applies to all school districts, charter schools, career and technical schools and approved private day or residential schools in Rhode Island.

It defines “bullying” as written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof directed at a student by one or more students that:

  • causes or places the student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or damage to the student’s property,
  • creates an intimidating, threatening, hostile or abuse educational environment,
  • infringes on the rights of the student to participate in school activities, or
  • disrupts the educational process or orderly operation of the school.106

The law identifies characteristics that may be reasonably perceived to have motivated the act of “bullying” as including race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.107 The law goes on to define “cyber-bullying” as bullying through the use of technology or electronic communication.108

The law charges the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE) to prescribe a statewide bullying policy that must be adopted by all the schools by June 30, 2012.  The policy must include:

  • procedures for students, staff, parents and others to report bullying,
  • procedures for promptly responding to and investigating reports of bullying or retaliation,
  • the range of disciplinary actions that may be taken,
  • a parental engagement strategy,
  • procedures for restoring a sense of safety for the student,
  • strategies for protecting a person who reports bullying or assists in the investigation,
  • procedures for promptly notifying the parents of both the perpetrator and victim,
  • procedures for providing appropriate counseling for the victim, perpetrator and others affected by the bullying.109

‚ÄčAre there other laws in Rhode Island that protect students from discrimination and harassment?

Yes. First, state law says that students, staff members and teachers all have the right to attend or work at a safe school, whether elementary, secondary or post-secondary.110 These provisions empower schools to suspend or expel disruptive students.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s guidance and model policies on bullying, teen dating violence and sexual violence explicitly acknowledge the role that sexual orientation, sex, disability, appearance, and clothing may play in bullying, and make clear the applicability of provisions relating to dating and sexual violence to students regardless of sexual orientation.112

Are there other sources of protection for LGBT students in Rhode Island?

Yes. A Board of Regents Policy adopted in 1997 and revised in 2010 provides in part as follows:

. . .all students, without exception, have the right to attend a school in which they feel safe and able to express their identity without fear.... Certain students, because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, have been subject to discrimination through abuse, harassment, bullying and/or exclusion from full participation in educational activities. 

Therefore, it is the Policy of the Board of Regents that no student shall be excluded from any educational program or activity or discriminated against, bullied, or harassed in any public educational setting based up on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. This policy shall include but is not limited to admissions, guidance, services, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

Each local school district is urged to review programs, services and activities to assure that such offerings are conducted in a manner that is free of inadvertent or intentional bias based upon sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Each local school district is required by law to address harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression through the development and enforcement of appropriate student and staff behavior and disciplinary policies…

The Board of Regents policy can be found at: http://www.thriveri.org/RIDE%20Discrimination%20Policy%202010.pdf. ;

What kinds of conduct does the policy cover?

Technically, the policy covers exclusion from a public school or discrimination in taking advantage of school programs. A school may not be so bold as to say, “Don’t come here,” or “You can’t take track,” but if they fail to redress pervasive harassment against you at school or in a particular class or activity, they may have said so in effect. It does not provide any mechanism for court or administrative enforcement of the policy.

Are there other laws which may protect me from discrimination and harassment because of my sexual orientation?

In some cases, other laws may help you to combat harassment. Under federal law, public schools which receive federal funds may not discriminate on the basis of sex. Sometimes, the harassment of a gay student will be sexual harassment forbidden by this federal law, known as Title IX. Complaints can be made to your school Title IX coordinator, as well as to the federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, in Boston.

A student’s constitutional rights under both state and federal constitutions may be violated by some kinds of discrimination and harassment as well.

In addition, under state law, every post-secondary school is to establish a written policy concerning sexual harassment.113 Also, post-secondary schools that have received internal complaints of harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression are required to disclose to the complainant in a timely manner how the complaint was addressed and what actions, if any, were taken to resolve the matter.114 Neither of these laws provides a mechanism for court enforcement.

As well, state law prohibits hazing, subjecting both the perpetrators of hazing and school officials who knowingly permit hazing to criminal liability. Hazing is defined as “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person.” 115

What can I do if I’m being discriminated against at school?

There are many ways to approach the issue. One is to ask for support from a friend, teacher or counselor and talk to the people who are bothering you. That is not an option, however, if you don’t feel safe doing so.

Take a look at your school policies and notify whoever is supposed to be notified — usually a vice principal or Title IX coordinator. You should document any incidents of harassment or discrimination in writing. Once you meet with the right officials, make a note of what you told them and on what date and ask when they will be getting back to you with a response. If they don’t help you or don’t follow through, you may wish to write to the principal and superintendent and ask for them to end the discrimination.

If all of these steps fail, you may also wish to consider legal action against the school district. Contact GLAD for attorney referrals.

Other Rights of Public School Students

In addition to the right to attend school in safety and free from discrimination and harassment based on your sexual orientation or gender identity or expression:

  • LGBTQ youth must have equal access to and be allowed to participate on equal terms in all school programs, including extracurricular activities.
  • Schools must respect the gender identity of transgender students, including using appropriate names and pronouns, and allowing transgender students to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity.
  • LGBTQ youth have the right to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
  • Students have the right to form extracurricular groups, such as Gay-Straight Alliances, on the same terms and with the same privileges and resources as all other extracurricular groups.
  • LGBTQ students have the right to express themselves on issues relating to sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
  • Students have the right to learn about LGBT issues and have access to information and resources, including education websites, about LGBT issues and people, regardless of objecting school officials or parents.

GLAD has a brochure called, Want to Know Your Right As an LGBTQ Student?, that can be found at:

http://www.glad.org/uploads/docs/publications/lgbtq-student-rights-ri.pdf.  We would be glad to mail you a printed version of this brochure.  Just contact GLAD Answers by email or live chat at http://www.GLADAnswers.org or by phone at 800-455-GLAD (4523).

Gay/Straight Alliances

Do students have the right to form Gay/Straight Alliances in their schools even if the principal or community opposes it?

Students have several legal tools available if they wish to form a Gay/Straight Alliance or club in their public school. A federal law known as the “Equal Access Act” provides that secondary school students in schools that receive federal funding and have extra-curricular groups must allow students to form other extra-curricular groups without discriminating based on the religious, philosophical, political or other content of the speech at meetings. According to both this law and general First Amendment principles, school administrators must respond consistently to all requests for the formation and funding of extracurricular clubs, even if they do not agree personally with the content or have concerns about the community’s reaction to its formation. A school cannot, on those bases, condition a club’s formation on the students’ willingness to change the club’s name, restrict the club’s access to school facilities that all clubs may access (i.e., meeting space, bulletin board or website space, yearbook entries, ability to announce activities), or establish different requirements for funding or staffing. GLAD successfully intervened on behalf of students seeking to form a GSA at South Kingston High School on this very basis.

Resources

Protect Your Rights

GLAD Answers
Call: (800) 455-GLAD (4523)
Email or Live Chat:
http://www.GLADAnswers.org

Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights
(401) 222-2661
http://www.richr.ri.gov

Rhode Island Department of Education
 at (401) 222-4600

US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights
(617) 289-0111
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

American Civil Liberties Union – RI
(401) 831-7171
http://www.riaclu.org

Know More About Your Rights

The text of the Rhode Island anti-bullying law:  http://bit.ly/ribullylaw

GLAD’s Rhode Island students’ rights webpage: http://bit.ly/ristudentsrights

GLAD’s webpage on student rights: http://bit.ly/gladstudentrights

Footnotes

106 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 16-21-33(a)(1).

107 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 16-21-33(a)(1)(v).

108 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 16-21-33(a)(2).

109 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 16-21-34.

110 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 16-2-17, 16-81-1.
112 See Guidance on Developing Required Policies Against Bullying; Guide to Preventing Bullying, Teen Dating Violence, and Sexual Violence.
113 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 16-76-1, 16-76-2.
114 R.I. Gen. Laws, § 16-76.1-1.
115 R.I. Gen. Laws, §§ 11-21-1, 11-21-2.