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Transgender Rights | Students | Rhode Island

Rhode Island Students Q&A

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)).

In 2016, RIDE released a detailed model policy that aimed to address the specific needs of transgender students and ensure schools’ compliance with civil rights laws. However, schools were not mandated to adopt the model policy, and many RI schools had no policy in place to protect the rights of this vulnerable group.

In 2018, RIDE filed regulations requiring all public school districts to adopt a comprehensive policy outlining the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students. The regulations took effect on April 17, 2018, and all schools were to have a compliant policy in place by July 1, 2018.

Specifically, the new regulations mandate districts have policies in place that are consistent with state and national best practices, and “address, at a minimum, such issues as confidentiality and privacy, discipline and exclusion, staff training, access to school facilities and participation in school programs, dress codes and official school records and use of preferred names and pronouns.”

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.

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 (see Guidance on Developing Required Policies Against Bullying, available at ; Guide to Preventing Bullying, Teen Dating Violence, and Sexual Violence, available at

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. . .

The Board of Regents policy can be found at:

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?

Possibly. Federal law prohibits sex discrimination in public schools that receive federal funding. Depending on the situation, harassment of LGBT students may be actionable as sex discrimination (see, e.g., Ray v. Antioch Unified School District, 107 F. Supp. 2d 1165 (N.D. Cal. 2000) (stating that attacks based on a student’s perceived sexuality constitute sex discrimination)). Harassment of transgender students in particular is actionable. Several federal courts have held that the federal anti-discrimination law, Title IX, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity (see, e.g., G.G. v. Gloucester Cnty. Sch. Bd., 822 F.3d 709 (4th Cir. 2016) mandate recalled and stayed, Gloucester Cnty. Sch. Bd. v. G.G., 136 S. Ct. 2442 (2016) (deferring to DOE’s interpretation that Title IX prohibits gender identity discrimination); Bd. of Educ. v. U.S. Dep’t of Educ., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131474 (S.D. Ohio 2016) (same)). Similarly, in 2016, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released a joint guidance taking the position that Title IX protects transgender students from discrimination based on gender identity; that Title IX obliges schools to respect a student’s gender identity and allow them to participate in sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities consistent with that identity; and that Title IX does not require a student to provide documentation or medical diagnosis before being treated consistently with their gender identity (see Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students, U.S. Department of Justice/U.S. Department of Education, available at

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

For additional information, see GLAD’s publication, Rights of LGBTQ Youth in RI.

GLAD has a brochure called, Rhode Island LGBTQ Student Rights Brochure.

We would be glad to mail you a printed version of this brochure.  Just contact GLAD Answers by email or live chat at or by phone at 800-455-GLAD (4523).