School principals need to be legally literate to effectively perform their important work in our nation’s schools, but with such a vast legal landscape, it can be difficult to know which cases and decisions to focus on most closely. We, therefore, have identified 10 U.S. Supreme Court cases that will assist secondary school leaders in their everyday practice, as they specifically pertain to students’ rights.
Access to Education
Plyler v. Doe (1982)
A state law denied education funding for the children of illegal immigrants. The law was challenged under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and the court found that public school officials may not deny a child access to a public education based on their immigration status. This decision remains especially relevant as the nation debates the status of undocumented students and their right to access public education. The U.S. Department of Education has issued a questions-and-answers sheet for further guidance: https://tinyurl.com/edqaccess.
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
This case involved whether students could be required by public school officials to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The court determined that no student could be compelled to participate, as the First Amendment protects the freedom to dissent. As the court explained:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
Professor Julie Underwood explains the case and its application to contemporary issues such as kneeling during the national anthem in the September 2017 issue of Kappan magazine, available at www.kappanonline.org/kneeling-during-the-national-anthem-at-schools-its-protected-speech.
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
Students were disciplined for wearing armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The court ruled that public school students do not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate. In order to curtail student speech, school leaders must be able to prove that the speech in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school; in this case, the court warned that school officials could only fear possible disruption. This case has been relied upon in recent controversies involving students’ internet speech and when students wear T-shirts to school (e.g., Confederate flag shirts). The Constitution Center further highlights the importance of this decision at constitutioncenter.org/blog/tinker-v-des-moines-protecting-student-free-speech.
Searches and Other Privacy Issues
Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009)
Under the Fourth Amendment, the search of a backpack or cellphone must be both reasonable at its inception and reasonable in scope. When school officials strip-searched a student because they had reason to believe she was hiding nonprescription painkillers in her underwear, the court held that her rights were violated. The court found that this particular search was too intrusive based on the evidence involved. The case suggests that strip searches are not impossible, but will be difficult to justify. C-SPAN provides an overview of this case and its implications at https://tinyurl.com/safred.
Board of Education v. Earls (2002)
In Earls, a school district required all students to consent to random and suspicionless drug testing to participate in extracurricular activities. Students challenged the policy as violative of the Fourth Amendment (prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures), but the court held that such a policy was constitutional. In doing so, the court balanced the privacy interests of the students (which is limited in the school context) against the school’s concern about student drug use (which the court found was reasonable, given the “nationwide epidemic” of drug use and evidence of drug use in the school district). While the court concluded a school can implement such a drug policy, it left open the wisdom of such a policy. School administrators, therefore, must determine whether a similar policy is appropriate or in the best interest of the school. A discussion on the Fourth Amendment and public schools can be found here: constitutioncenter.org/blog/when-does-a-public-school-have-the-right-to-search-its-students.
Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo (2002)
Owasso reminds school administrators of the importance of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which prohibits the release of a student’s educational records without parental consent (with a few exceptions). The court found that the practice of peer grading tests in classrooms (where students grade one another’s tests and report the grade aloud) did not violate FERPA. Teachers can exchange certain educational information about a student so long as there is a “legitimate educational interest” (e.g., a guidance counselor might review a student’s transcript to prepare for college applications). More guidance on FERPA can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/edferpa.
Goss v. Lopez (1975)
In Goss, several students were suspended without a hearing. The court found that the school district’s actions violated the students’ rights to due process under the 14th Amendment. Importantly for school administrators, the court noted that due process (a hearing and an opportunity to contest the discipline) in suspensions with durations shorter than 10 days could be informal. Indeed, given how fast events transpire in schools, a notice and hearing may occur immediately after the alleged misconduct. However, administrators should be aware of the following: a) longer suspensions—and certainly expulsions—require more formal procedures (more time between the notice of suspension and a hearing, for example) and b) state laws may require such formal procedures even in the context of a “short” suspension. Find an overview of this topic here: https://tinyurl.com/edlawdis.
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017)
This case considered how much benefit is required to meet the requirement for free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The parents of a child with autism argued that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) provided by the school did not provide sufficient benefit. The school district argued it had done enough. A lower court ruled that all that was required to satisfy IDEA’s FAPE requirement was “some educational benefit” that was more than “de minimus.” The court disagreed, ruling that an IEP must consider the “unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created” and should outline goals and services “to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” National Public Radio’s All Things Considered provides a discussion of the case at https://tinyurl.com/supspeced.
Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (2017)
Whether or not a service animal must be permitted in schools framed the dispute in this case. Parents argued that the school district violated Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to allow their child to attend school with a service dog. School officials contended that the parents should first have to file a due process complaint under IDEA. The court determined that parents do not have to use IDEA’s administrative procedures if the heart of the dispute does not implicate FAPE. The court established two questions to determine whether the issue is about FAPE:
“First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school? Second, could an adult at the school have pressed essentially the same grievance?”
The court remanded the case for consideration of those questions with regard to the girl’s dog. The U.S. Department of Justice provides a guide on frequently asked questions about service animals, available at www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.
Prayer in School
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
A school district permitted students to elect a classmate to lead a prayer over the public announcement system before high school football games. Other students challenged this policy, and the court ruled that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the school appeared to endorse religion by maintaining control over this speech. In recent years, questions have arisen about whether prayers in school should be characterized as private speech or school-sponsored speech. Prayer at school-related events continues to be challenged. The First Amendment Center provides greater clarity to this issue: www.firstamendmentcenter.org/school-prayer.
Julie F. Mead, PhD, is the associate dean for education and chair and professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Mark Paige, JD, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth and a former school law attorney. Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. She is a co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits and is president of the Education Law Association.