What are my rights as an LGBTQ+ student?

What are my rights as an LGBTQ+ student?

All Rhode Island public school students have the right:

  • To be safe in school without being bullied,
  • To be protected from discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation,
    gender identity or HIV status.
  • To access information about LGBTQ subjects including educational websites,
    To dress and present yourself in a manner consistent with your gender identity,
  • To free speech and expression. This means you have the right to express ideas
    that may offend other people and you have the right to disagree with others, as
    long as you express those ideas in a respectful way.

All Rhode Island public and many private school students have the right:

  • To form a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) that gets treated the same as every
    other non-curricular group. This means equal funding, access to facilities, and
    the ability to choose your group’s name.

Outside of school, you have the right:

  • To be protected from discrimination based on your actual or perceived sexual
    orientation, HIV status, or gender identity in employment, housing, and public
    accommodations (like restaurants or stores).
  • To give your own consent to get tested for HIV without your parents’
    permission. For more specific information, see the “HIV/AIDS” Issue Area.
  • To report to the police anyone in or out of school who physically harms you,
    threatens you, or vandalizes your property.

Are there any laws protecting transgender students in Rhode Island?

Yes. 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 abusive 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 (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-21-33(a)(1)).

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

The law goes on to define “cyber-bullying” as bullying through the use of technology or electronic communication (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-21-33(a)(2)).

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 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 (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-21-34)

Does Rhode Island have guidance schools should follow to protect transgender students?

Yes, in 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Education created guidance for schools to follow to protect the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students.

The model policy includes the following:

  • Schools should respect a transgender student’s name and pronouns;
  • Schools should respect transgender students’ privacy regarding any
    medical information, previous names, etc.;
  • The name and gender on a student’s records should conform to the
    student’s gender identity;
  • Transgender students should be able to use the restroom, locker room, and
    changing facility that accord with their gender identity;
  • In any sex-segregated activities (including athletics), transgender students
    should be able to participate in a manner consistent with their gender

For more details, see: Guidance for Rhode Island Schools on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students

Are 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 (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-2-17 and § 16-81-1).  These provisions empower schools to suspend or expel disruptive students.

Are there other sources of protection for transgender 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 upon 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 and/or gender identity/expression.  Each local school district is required by law to address harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression through the development and enforcement of appropriate student and staff behavior and disciplinary policies. . .

What kinds of conduct does the law and 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?

Complaints can be made to your school’s Title IX coordinator, as well as to the federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, in Boston. In cases where a school has reacted with deliberate indifference, monetary damages may be available. A student’s constitutional rights may be violated by some kinds of discrimination and harassment.

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 (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-76-1 and § 16-76-2). Also, post-secondary schools that have received internal complaints of harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity or 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 (R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-76.1-1).  Neither of these laws provides a mechanism for court enforcement.

Finally, 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” (R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-21-1 and § 11-21-2).

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’s 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.  Contact GLAD Answers for attorney referrals.

What other rights do I have as a public school student?

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 LGBTQ+ issues and have access to information and resources, including educational websites, about LGBTQ+ issues and people, regardless of objecting school officials or parents.