How to be your own and best advocate
You have the right to a free public education.
And you have the right to be in a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination, harassment, bullying, and bigotry.
While the Constitution protects the rights of students at school, many school officials are unaware of students’ legal protections, or simply ignore them.
It’s essential to to know your rights and ensure that your school treats every student fairly and equally.
The ACLU has a long tradition of fighting to protect students’ rights, and is always ready to speak with you on a confidential basis. If you believe that your rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to contact your local ACLU affiliate.Here are six things you need to know about your rights at school:
1. Speech rights
The First Amendment ensures that students cannot be punished for exercising free speech rights, even if school administrators don’t approve of what they are saying.
Unfortunately, where legal protections are weak, schools are threatening student’s speech – and their privacy – by requiring them to reveal the contents of their social media accounts, cell phones, laptops, and other personal technologies.
The ACLU is fighting for new state laws around the country that would provide stronger student privacy protections.
Over the years, the ACLU has successfully defended the right of students to wear an anti-abortion armband, a pro-LGBT t-shirt, and shirts critical of political figures. The ACLU has even defended the rights of high school students who wanted to protest the ACLU.
Contact the ACLU if you believe your school is trying to limit your First Amendment rights.
2. Dress codes
While schools are allowed to establish dress codes, students have a right to express themselves.
Dress codes are all too often used to target and shame girls, force students to conform to gender stereotypes and punish students who wear political and countercultural messages.
Such policies can be used as cover for racial discrimination, by targeting students of color over supposed “gang” symbols or punishing students for wearing natural hairstyles and hair extensions. Dress codes can also infringe on a student’s religious rights by barring rosaries, headscarves and other religious symbols.
Schools must make the case that a certain kind of dress is disruptive to school activities. They cannot use dress codes to punish girls, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming students and free speech.
If you are told to comply with a dress code that you believe is discriminatory, contact the ACLU. Complying with the dress code will not prevent you from challenging it at a later date.
3. Immigrant rights
Schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, national origin. Undocumented children cannot be denied their right to a free public education, but some schools continue to create exclusionary policies. Last year, the ACLU sued several school districts for requiring families to prove their immigration status in order to enroll their children in school.
Students with limited English proficiency cannot be turned away by schools, which must provide them with language instruction.
Contact the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project if you have observed or experienced discrimination based on immigration status or national origin in school.
4. Disability rights
Public schools are prohibited by federal law from discriminating against people with disabilities, and cannot deny them equal access to academic courses, field trips, extracurricular activities, school technology, and health services.
Sometimes, educators and administrators discriminate by refusing to make necessary medical accommodations, restricting access to educational activities and opportunities, ignoring harassment and bullying, and failing to train staff on compliance with state and federal laws.
Schools have a duty to defend students with disabilities from bullying and biased treatment, and the ACLU is working to ensure that the rights of these students are protected.
5. LGBT rights
Bullying of LGBT students can be pervasive at schools, and is all too often ignored or encouraged by the schools themselves. LGBT students have a right to be who they are and express themselves at school. Students have a right to be out of the closet at school, and schools cannot skirt their responsibility to create a safe learning environment and address incidents of harassment.
Public schools are not allowed to threaten to “out” students to their families, overlook bullying, force students to wear clothing inconsistent with their gender identity or bar LGBT-themed clubs or attire. Transgender and gender non-conforming students often face hostile environments in which school officials refuse to refer to students by their preferred gender pronouns or provide access to appropriate bathroom and locker room facilities.
If you find that your school is undermining your rights, contact your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.
Be sure to report incidents of bullying or bias to a school principal or counselor and remember to keep detailed notes of your interactions with officials and make copies of any paperwork that the school asks you to fill out.
6. Pregnancy discrimination
Since Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in education, was passed in 1972, schools have been prohibited from excluding pregnant students and students with children.
Yet schools often push such students to drop out by making it impossible to complete classwork, preventing them from participating in extracurricular activities, refusing to accommodate schedule adjustments, punishing them with unwarranted disciplinary actions, and pressuring them to transfer or quit school altogether.
Denying these students an education, access to school activities and reasonable accommodations violates their rights. Public schools must ensure that pregnant students have access to the same accommodations that students with temporary medical conditions are given, including the ability to make up missed classwork and learn in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.
Schools are also not allowed to punish students who choose to terminate a pregnancy or reveal a student’s private medical information.
If you believe that your school is treating you unfairly for being pregnant, ending a pregnancy, or having a child, contact the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.
What does it mean to advocate for yourself?
Advocacy is the process and action of supporting a particular cause or proposal. An advocate is someone who supports a particular cause or solution.
When you advocate for yourself, you support your cause and needs. You also work toward finding a solution to a particular problem so that you can be your best self.
As a student, you have the right to an education. If you are facing a problem such as suspension or you feel your disability needs are not being met, self-advocacy is an essential skill.
Self-advocacy helps you:
- Obtain what you need
- Make your own choices
- Learn to say no without feeling guilty
- Express disagreement respectfully
How to advocate for yourself
You become a self-advocate by taking the initiative to ask directly and specifically for what you need.
When you ask, you are polite. You listen to the other person’s response without interrupting. You are patient, knowing that change might take some time.
If you feel nothing is changing despite your best attempts, you ask for help from a parent, teacher, or other adult.
Here are a few ideas to help you advocate for yourself. You may want to practice them with a friend or family member.
1. Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing gives your body lots of oxygen, and oxygen helps you feel calmer and think more clearly.
2. Think about what you want to be different.
Before you talk to the other person, make sure you know what you want to happen. Do you want to be treated differently? Do you want that person to stop doing something? What do you want or need?
3. Speak clearly and slowly.
Start by saying something like, “I would like to talk with you about…” and then calmly describe how you see the situation.
4. Listen to the other person.
Being a self-advocate means that you also are open to solutions. The other person needs a chance to respond to what you are saying. If that person becomes impatient, try to stay calm and take a deep breath.
5. Be patient.
Change is not always instant or lasting. Sometimes it takes many conversations with the other person before anything changes. You may even have to remind the person more than once.
6. Ask for help.
One of the best parts of being your own advocate is that you don’t have to solve all the problems on your own. You can and should ask for help. Asking for help is also advocating for yourself.
How can I advocate for myself if I have been suspended?
What can I do if am suspended or expelled?
It’s Minnesota law: No public school shall deny due process or equal protection of the law to any public school pupil involved in a dismissal proceeding which may result in suspension, exclusion, or expulsion.
This means that the school administration cannot suspend you without an informal administrative conference where you can advocate for yourself, discuss the charges, and make a plan of action.
Learn more about the laws in Minnesota, your student rights, your right to a hearing, and the process for returning to school after suspension or expulsion.
Student suspensions often fall under “subjective” categories. Subjective incidents include things like bullying, disruptive/disorderly conduct, verbal abuse, other, attendance, and threats and intimidation.
For the 2015-16 school year, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that 55 percent of all suspensions and expulsions statewide fell into these subjective categories. African American students were eight times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, while Native American students were 10 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
In other words, the perceptions of misbehavior are often being read through a racialized lens. According to one researcher, Edward Morris, who studies racial disparities and the MDHR findings: “The same types of behavior, when demonstrated by an African American girl, is perceived very differently than if it is shown by a white girl or an Asian girl.”
This is why it’s essential that all educators have rigorous implicit bias training and that you know your rights as a student in Minnesota.
How can I advocate for myself as a student with a disability?
First and foremost, you should always be able to have the accommodations you need in school for your disability or health care needs.
This is your right.
Just because you have a disability, it doesn’t mean you can’t do as well as the other kids in school. You have the same rights to succeed.
By law, every school has a process [a set way] for you to talk to teachers and others about what you need. Sometimes this plan or process is called an Individual Education Plan [IEP], a 504 plan, or sometimes something else.
Here are some ways you can prepare for that meeting and be your own best advocate.
Step 1: Evaluate what you need.
Sit down with your parents/caregivers and decide what accommodations you need based on your disability.
For example, extra time on tests, a note taker, or two sets of books.
Only pick accommodations that are necessary for your disability. People with different disabilities need different things.
Step 2: Find a helpful resource at school.
This could be a teacher, vice-principal or counselor, who is willing to work with you and make sure you get what you need. Ask other kids who get accommodations at school what works for them, or talk to the principal about what is available.
Once you find a helpful resource, have a meeting with that person and see what they can do to help you advocate for yourself. This resource will serve as your case worker.
Step 3: Talk to your teachers.
Try to have a meeting with all your teachers, with your parents/caregivers, and your case worker present. The teachers have overall power in the classroom, so it’s important that they understand your needs.
If a meeting is not possible, have your case worker or parents write a letter. If you are in high school, go talk to your teachers, express your needs and let them know that they can contact your parents or case worker with any questions. If a teacher is unwilling to work with you, see what your case worker can do.
If that does not work, talk to the administration [the principal or even your school board], about the problem. Teachers can’t discriminate against you.
Step 4: Have a follow up meeting.
Several times during the school year you should stop by to talk to your case worker and let them know how everything is going. Half way through the year you should have a meeting with your parents and case worker, and try to have one teacher present, to talk about what is working for you and what isn’t.
Leading your school meeting
Leading your own school meeting
Sometimes it can be hard to lead a meeting. There may be a lot to think about, but here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Plan ahead
Make an agenda [meeting outline or schedule] that lists everything that needs to be talked about at the meeting. Include timeframes in your agenda [how long you want each task to last]
2. Send the agenda out a week early.
If someone else has to get any equipment or supplies for you please make sure that you put in your request early to give the person time to get you what you need.
Be clear about your expectations for those who come to your meeting, and also about what benefits they may get from attending.Be a facilitator
A facilitator helps guide a meeting and keeps the meeting flowing. This person does not tell everyone what to do. Instead, he or she helps to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak so that the group can make decisions. It’s important to encourage discussion.
Help the group stick to the timeframe set out in the agenda.
3. Have all materials ready
Try to have all handouts ready before your meeting. It is helpful to send them out with the agenda. Make sure you also bring copies of all materials to the meeting, and make them available in alternative formats, even if ‘upon request’.
Make sure that the wording is as clear as possible to keep others from getting confused.
4. Smile and believe in yourself.
Know that you can do this. Think of this as practice. You will get better and better each time.
Self-advocacy is a key step in becoming an adult. It means looking out for yourself, telling others what you need,and knowing how to take responsibility. No one is born knowing these skills. Self-advocacy skills are needed over a lifetime, and everyone has to learn them. Here is some great information that can start you on your way!
What is self-advocacy?
Self-advocacy means taking the responsibility for telling others what you want and need in a straightforward way. It is knowing how to:
- Speak up for yourself
- Describe your strengths, disability, needs, and wishes
- Take responsibility for yourself
- Recognize your rights
- Identify who to ask if you have a question or need help
Where can I practice self-advocacy skills?
A great place to practice self-advocacy skills is in your Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. Withthe support of your team members, you can learn ways to:
- Explain your disability to others
- Set goals for yourself
- Build teamwork skills
- Share with teachers what works and does not work for you
- Ask for accommodations
- Accept help from others
- Lead all or part of the IEP meeting
But I don’t like going to these meetings!
Sometimes students are uncomfortable in IEP meetings. However, there are many ways you can be involved in team decisions and learn self-advocacy skills. Some of these ideas might work for you:
- Come to the meeting for just a few minutes and share what is working and not working for you
- Write down your ideas, questions, and concerns ahead of time
- Practice or role-play what you want to say
- Introduce yourself
- Tell team members about your interests, strengths, and desires for the future
- Explain to the team what it is like to have your disability
- Help your special education teacher write the agenda
- Help the team develop IEP goal areas
- Ask for explanations if you do not understand something
- At the end of the meeting, review what the team decided
- If you choose not to attend the meeting, share your input with your parent(s) or special education teacher before the meeting and then review the results afterward
Most people are more comfortable at meetings if they have had some time to think about what they want to say.
Before your IEP meeting, you might think about these questions:
- What are my strengths?
- What do I want to learn or work on improving this year?
- What are my special concerns?
- How do I learn best?
- What do I need to be successful?
- What would make learning easier for me?
- What positive information about myself can I share at the meeting?
What does the law say about me attending IEP meetings?
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that you must automatically be invited to all
of your IEP meetings once you are age 16. (You don’t have to go, but it’s a good idea. You can be very helpful at the
meeting.) Minnesota law says that your IEP team needs to invite you beginning at age 14 or when you are in 9th grade to talk about transition services. You may want to discuss attending your IEP meeting with your parents.
Transition is about planning for your future. You will look at your skills in three areas:
- Postsecondary education
- Independent living
Planning and self-advocacy will help you succeed after high school. When you turn 18, you will be considered an adult and will need to make decisions on your own, including signing your own IEP. This is why it is a great idea to practice self-advocacy skills as much as possible.
Learning good self-advocacy skills is cool. It will help you while you are in school and when you become an adult. Knowing and exercising your rights are important steps in becoming a strong self-advocate.
Additional Resources & Support
Students for Education Reform
YouthPower St. Paul
Homeless Youth Handbook
OutFront MN Youth Orgs
Join us in working to support education justice in Minnesota schools.
Demand Culturally Responsive Teaching and Culturally Responsive Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (CRPBIS).
CRPBIS school teams establish clearly defined outcomes that relate to students’ academic and social behavior, systems that support staff efforts, practices that support student success, and data to guide decision-making.
Learn more about Minnesota’s plans and if your school and district supports CRBIS.
Demand alternatives to suspensions.
Developing alternatives to suspension and implementing evidence-based interventions can help reduce out-of-school suspensions as a response to disciplinary incidents and keep students in school where they can learn.
Ask how your school or district supports suspension alternatives.
Email your school superintendent.
Contact members of your school district to demand they support essential practices for ending discipline disparities in Minnesota schools.
View form letter.
Email your legislator.
Contact your legislator to tell them to ACT NOW to support PESLB training and policies to end discipline disparities in Minnesota schools.
View form letter.
Sign up for our School Climate Network.
We are coordinating a team of educators and advocates to develop solutions and evidence-based practice for ending disparities in Minnesota schools, including implicit bias training in Critical Race Theory for educators; focusing on emotional learning and counselors instead police presence; positive behavioral interventions and supports; and advocating for and demanding systems change to end ongoing racist practices and exclusionary policies that harm students.