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School Days

Between certain ages, you have a right to an education and an obligation to attend school.  At school, you have rights under the constitutional principles that guarantee due process and prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.  But your rights must be balanced against the school’s need for an orderly place for learning.  Read on for more information about school attendance, your rights at school, privacy and searches, and discipline. 


Attendance

Do I have a right to go to school?

If you are of school age, you have the right to attend public school in the school district where you live.  School age begins in the year in which a child turns six before September 1 and continues until the student reaches age twenty, or graduates from high school, whichever happens first.  For kindergarten the age is five.  Your right to a free public education cannot be taken away without due process of law, which means fair procedures allowing you to answer any charges against you.  In other words, your school cannot suspend or expel you from school without giving you a chance to show that you don’t deserve the punishment.  Your right to fair procedures is explained under Student Discipline below.

Do I have to go to school if I don’t want to?

Alaska law requires you to attend school from the time you are seven until you are sixteen years old.  If you are home-schooled, which means educated in your home by your parent or guardian, you are exempt from this attendance rule.  You and your parents are both responsible for making sure that you do attend school.  If you are less than seven or over sixteen, it is up to your parents whether you have to attend. 

What happens if I don’t go to school?

If you are seven through sixteen, and skip school without a valid reason, you are truant.  Truancy is a violation of Alaska law.   Some school districts enforce truancy rules more than others, but you may be subject to school discipline, including suspension or expulsion, if you skip school.   Adults who help or encourage students to be truant may face large fines and other legal charges.

   Alice Eichenberger, Honorable Mention, Grades 9-12 Category
2012 “Justice for All” Art Contest

What is a valid reason for missing school?

Generally, absences are allowed for illness and medical appointments, and for justifiable personal reasons, such as a court appearance, or observance of a religious holiday.  An absence may be allowed if your parents ask permission ahead of time and the school approves.  Whether an absence is allowed will always depend on the specific facts and the judgment of your principal or superintendent.  Be sure you know your school’s procedure for reporting an excusable absence or asking for permission to miss school. 

Can I attend school part-time?

In some cases, yes.  Students attending private schools or correspondence programs, or who are home-schooled, often may enroll as part-time students in grades K-12. Part-time students must meet all conditions and terms of enrollment in courses that are met by full-time students, and may not be eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics. 

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Physicals/Vaccinations

Do I need a health examination to attend school?

Generally, yes.  When you enroll in public school for the first time, you must bring a physical examination certificate completed within the last twelve months, or you must have an exam within 90 days after starting school.  If you are asked for a health exam and don’t submit it within sixty days after starting school, a certificated school nurse usually will complete a health screening.

Do I need to be vaccinated to attend school?

You must also demonstrate that you have been vaccinated or immunized for a number of infectious diseases identified in state law.  You will have to get the shots to protect yourself and others against these diseases unless:

  • you have a valid certificate of immunization listing the dates when you previously received the required immunizations; or
  • you turn in a medical provider’s signed statement showing that a required immunization would injure your health or the health of members of your family or household; or
  • your parent or guardian gives your school a sworn statement (an affidavit) stating that immunization is contrary to the beliefs or practices of your parent’s or guardian’s church or religious denomination.

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Rights

How do I know what my rights and responsibilities are?

Schools are required to give students annual lessons about student rights and responsibilities at school.  Most schools will give you a copy of a student guide to explain your rights and responsibilities.   In addition, each school district’s board policy manual contains most school rules.  These manuals are often available on-line at your school district’s website or you may be able to get a copy from the school district office. 

The school board policy manual must follow Alaska law, and will often contain citations to statutes and regulations.  Alaska statutes (AS) and regulations (in the Alaska Administrative Code or AAC) are available on the State of Alaska website (www.alaska.gov).  They may also be found at the Alaska Legal Resource Center (www.touchngo.com/lglcntr/).


Sarah Souders, Honorable Mention, Grades K-8 Category
2012 “Justice for All” Art Contest

  

Do I have the right to free speech in school?

Yes, but the right to free speech is not absolute, and the limits are complicated.  Generally, you have the right to freedom of speech so long as you do not disrupt the school environment, act insubordinate, use obscene speech, or threaten violence. Special rules may apply if you are writing for a school publication, such as a yearbook or newspaper.

Do I have the right to bring a firearm or deadly weapon to school?

No.  You may be subject to severe punishment, including expulsion from school, for bringing a firearm or other deadly weapon to school.  You could also be charged with a criminal offense. 

Can I get in trouble for posting bad things about teachers or students on social media like facebook?

Maybe.  Even if you use a computer away from school, you could be in trouble if you threaten or embarrass other students or faculty by your postings.  The courts have not clearly answered the question of what online conduct can be punished, so don’t assume that you can’t be punished for what you do outside of school.

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Dress Code

Can the school tell me how I have to dress?

Yes, up to a point. As with other student rights, your right of personal expression and appearance at school must be balanced with the school’s need to provide a safe and healthy learning environment.  Your school may have a dress code that prohibits clothing items that promote illegal activities or gang affiliations, violence, discrimination, or the use of tobacco, drugs, alcohol or weapons.  A dress code may also prohibit items that may disrupt the learning environment because they are sexually suggestive, obscene, lewd or vulgar.

A school may not prohibit dress that is part of the practice of your religion.  If your religion requires certain dress, such as a yarmulke or hijab, the school must accommodate you.  You may not be deprived of your right to a free public education because of your religion. 

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Phones & Computers

Can my school take away my cell phone, computer, or other property?

A school needs to keep order in its buildings and on its grounds to have a safe and healthy place for learning.  Sometimes students use cell phones, tablets, computers, and other property in ways that interfere with the school’s need for order and safety.  Generally, school employees may take and hold your property if it disrupts the school or interferes with others’ education.

School employees may set limits on when and where you use your phone, tablet, computer, and other property, and may even ban them from school completely.  If you use your phone, tablet, computer, or other property in violation of a school rule, the school may also temporarily take them away from you.  The school may hold your items until the end of the school day, and release them to your parents rather than to you.  The school may also discipline you for violating a school rule on use of these items. 

Can the school search the contents of information stored on my cell phone or computer?

A school official may search your cell phone, personal computer, or similar device if the official has a reasonable suspicion that the search will produce evidence that you or someone else has violated a law or a school rule.  For example, if the school official has a good reason to think that your cell phone camera has been used to take a picture of another student in a restroom, the official can look at the photos on the camera because a school rule prohibits taking that kind of picture.  The school official’s search must be reasonably related to the reason for the search, and it must not go beyond what is necessary to look for the suspected violation.

In contrast, if a school official takes away your phone or computer simply because you used it at a time when you were not allowed to use the device, a search of the phone or computer is probably not reasonable. 

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Privacy & Searches

Are my school records private?

Generally, yes.  School records that contain private or sensitive information that could identify you are protected under state and federal law.  Private or sensitive records may be released to school officials who need to know about them, but not to anybody else without your parents’ permission.  Your parents have a right to see your school records until you turn 18.  After that, the rights transfer to you.

Can a school search my property?

The United States and Alaska Constitutions prohibit the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures.  But the courts have found some kinds of searches at school are reasonable.  In part, the reasonableness of a search depends on whether you can expect privacy in the area that is searched.  For example, you can generally expect privacy in your home.  But you cannot expect privacy if signs posted in a locker area state that the lockers are subject to search at any time.

The reasonableness of a search may also depend on whether there is a good reason for the search.  The area of the search -including your body- must also be reasonable in relation to the reason for the search.  A search cannot be more intrusive than necessary considering your age and sex, and the rule or law the school thinks you have violated.

Can the school search my locker?

Generally, Yes.  School districts have the right to search your locker if the school posts a notice that lockers are subject to search, and if the search is necessary to investigate a suspected violation of school rules or the law.  Even if the school does not post a notice, the school can search your locker if there is reasonable suspicion that the search will discover evidence of a violation of school rules or the law. 

Can the school search my backpack, purse, or clothing?

Yes.  School employees can search your backpack or purse if they have reason to believe you are violating the law or a school rule.  The area of the search, however, must be reasonable as discussed above.

Can the school search me?

Sometimes.  One decision of the United States Supreme Court held that student athletes may be randomly drug tested.  The court said athletes have a lesser  expectation of privacy, and that collection of urine samples is not too intrusive when considered against a school’s need to stop illegal drug use.

On the other hand, a court decided that a strip search of a 13-year-old girl was not reasonable considering her age and sex and the type of violation of which she was suspected.  The court said a search of her backpack and outer clothing for drugs may have been justified.

Can the school search my car?

Yes.  Schools may search student cars parked in a school parking lot.  The paperwork for a student parking permit may inform students that the school has a right to search cars in the parking lot.  In one case, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a school safety officer could search a car for drugs or alcohol.  The safety officer saw a student who was having problems parking and answering questions and appeared to be drunk.  The safety officer could search the car’s ashtray because the student’s high level of intoxication suggested drug use as well as alcohol use.   

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Discipline

Types of discipline

Can I be suspended or expelled from school as a punishment?

Under Alaska law, a student can be suspended or expelled for actions that disrupt the school, bother or endanger other students, or violate school rules.  The seriousness of the punishment the school may impose depends on facts such as

  • how likely your actions are to cause harm to people or property;
  • if you have a record of past offenses;
  • the punishment given to others for the same conduct; and
  • the school’s need to maintain an appropriate educational environment.

Can a school punish me by spanking, striking, or other corporal punishment?

No.  School officials may not use corporal punishment in Alaska.  But school officials may touch or restrain you to prevent harm to persons or property; it is not corporal punishment if they do. 

Can I be required to pay for damage to school property?

Yes.  Both you and your parents may be required to pay back the school for any school property that you damage or destroy. 

Discipline procedures

What are my rights if the school thinks I should be disciplined?

Your rights depend on how severe the possible discipline  (or punishment) is, and whether the punishment will take away your right to receive an education.  Generally, the more severe the possible punishment, the more extensive the fair procedures to which you are entitled. 

Minor punishments that don’t interfere with your education do not require due process.  Examples of minor punishments include detentions or in-school suspensions.  Your school may allow you some procedures to contest detention or in-school suspension, so check your school’s handbook. 

Moderate punishments such as out-of-school suspensions for less than 10 days require some fairness procedures, but they may be very informal.  Before imposing a short suspension, school officials must

  • let you know that you may be suspended,
  • tell you the reasons for the suspension, and
  • give you a chance to tell your side of the story. 

Severe punishments, including suspensions of 10 or more days, and expulsions, require additional fairness procedures because they will interfere with your education.   Before imposing a long suspension or expelling you, school officials must

  • let you know what your punishment may be,
  • give you a chance to have a hearing before an impartial person, (an impartial  person is one who has no reason to favor either you or the school official who is proposing the punishment),
  • allow you to be represented by an attorney at the hearing,
  • give you a chance to present witnesses and other evidence at the hearing, and
  • give you a final written or recorded official decision that explains the reasons for the decision.

Generally, you can appeal suspension or expulsion decisions to the principal, superintendent, and in some cases, to the school board.

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