The Youth Rights Guide is an ever-evolving resource, and a large topic. The Guide right now focuses on the civil rights of public or charter school students in Hawai‘i. Some of the rights discussed here may apply only to students in Hawai‘i public or charter schools and not to other students (like those who attend private schools or are homeschooled). All references to “school” in this handbook refer to public or charter schools under the jurisdiction of the Hawai‘i Department of Education. To learn more, also consult your school’s policy guide or student handbook. For informational purposes only, not intended as a comprehensive guide or legal advice. Presented as a public service by the ACLU of Hawaii Foundation.
Youth Rights Guide
1. Do I have to go to school?
If you are between the ages of 6 and 18 by Jan. 1 of any school year, you must attend school.
2. Can I go to a different school?
If you want to attend a school that’s not in your district, you must file a geographic exception application with the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE). You can find the form on the DOE website. There are two other ways you can attend a different school without filing an application:
If your parents/guardians allow you to move in with someone who lives in the school district where you want to go to school; or
If you are emancipated. Being emancipated means your parents/guardians are no longer responsible for you. In Hawaii, the only way to be emancipated as a minor is to get married.
Are there any other options? Your parents/guardians or guardian can have you get your education at home — homeschooling — or enrolled in another educational program that has been approved by the Superintendent of Schools.
3. What if I’m homeless or don’t have a permanent address?
There are special exceptions for those who may not be living at home because of financial reasons. You can enroll right away even if you don’t have all your records or paperwork. You can stay in the school even if you later moved outside the district. Contact the state Homeless Concerns Office at (866) 927-7095.
4. What if I have a disability?
Schools must provide you with the necessary resources for you to attend school with a disability, at no cost to your parent or guardian. These special education resources could include (but are not limited to) academic services, speech-language services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, counseling services, and parent/guardian education.
5. What about students in juvenile detention?
The Department of Education is required to provide education for youth while they are in juvenile detention.
6. Can you say whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want?
Not always. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater (unless there really is a fire). There are free speech limits for everyone, not just youth. But the First Amendment protects your freedom of speech in many important ways. Here’s what you should know.
7. What is speech?
It’s not just talking. Speech is any expression of what you think or believe, either verbally, in writing or other nonverbal means, like making a gesture. This can include everything from talking, writing, handing out petitions or flyers, posting messages on the internet, and displaying messages on a T-shirt or other clothing.
8. Limitations on free speech.
There are certain forms of expression that the school can prohibit. Here’s what to look for:
- Will your speech disrupt classes or other school activities?
- Does it threaten immediate harm to the school, the students, or the community?
- Is your message obscene (like pornography), indecent (like swear words), racist or discriminatory?
- Does your activity create a health or safety risk?
- Does it promote an illegal activity, like drug use?
- Does your speech make false and defamatory attacks on someone?
If your answer to any of the above is yes, then it’s likely the kind of speech your school can prohibit. But sometimes it’s not clear that your speech will cause these problems. If you’re not sure, talk to an adult you trust or contact the ACLU.
9. Can I speak out in school?
You have the right to express your opinions in school, but there are some limits. Here they are:
School-sponsored events: Your school can regulate what you say at school events like sporting events, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies. So what can you say? Think about what your school, your parents/guardians and other students would consider to be OK. If you know it’s going to cause a serious disruption, the school can probably prevent you from saying it.
Class assignments: You can’t be punished for writing about a controversial topic, or expressing a certain position about it — as long as you meet the assignment’s requirements set out by your teacher. She can’t ask you to express your opinion on a subject, and then give you an F for doing so. Just make sure you’re sticking to the subject and following the rules.
Your clothes: Your clothes can have a message on them, as long as it’s not vulgar or disruptive to other students’ learning (see the restrictions on the previous page) — even if the school disagrees with the message. Of course, if your school has a dress code policy (or uniforms), then you have to follow those rules. But if a teacher asks you to remove, cover up, or change your t-shirt because of the message, make sure you understand why. If you feel your rights have been violated — that the dress code is unreasonable, or violates your rights to speech or expression — contact the ACLU.
School uniforms: Schools are allowed to establish school uniforms IF: they can show that the majority of the members of the school community support this, that no undue financial burden is placed on students, and that there is a process to request a waiver from the dress code.
Body art and hairstyles: Schools can regulate body piercings as part of the dress code. But the dress code has its limits. You can have dreadlocks or dye your hair orange if you like. If you’re wearing something for legitimate religious reasons, like a Jewish yarmulke, the school can’t stop you by saying it violates the dress code.
Demonstrations and protests: You can participate in protests, as long as you’re not skipping class to attend. If you’re on school property, school officials can restrict where and when you protest. They can stop a protest if it causes a serious disruption to school activities.
10. Do I have to participate?
Your school can’t require you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, salute the flag, or sing the National Anthem; you don’t have to stand, or leave the room, while others do so.
11. What about student groups?
Sometimes students create non-school-sponsored groups around common interests, like religion or political views. These are groups not sponsored by the school or directly related to school courses. The school may not agree with the group’s views. Even so, you have a constitutional right of free association. Here are some questions and answers about these groups:
Can the school prevent us from meeting? It depends. Schools can set rules about where and when non-school-related groups meet at school. But the rules must be the same for all student groups. They can’t let some groups meet and not others.
Does the school have any control over student groups? If the school allows students to meet on campus, then it must make sure the groups follow certain basic rules:
- No discrimination: The student group can’t discriminate against anyone.
- Run by students: The meetings are voluntary and initiated by the students. The meetings are not sponsored by the school or government.
- Scheduling: The meetings don’t interfere with school activities.
- No outsiders: People from outside the school don’t regularly attend (but guest speakers are OK, as long as they’re not there regularly).
What if my student group is religious? Or it’s a group like the Gay-Straight Alliance? If the school allows groups to meet on school grounds that are not directly related to school courses — like the chess club — the school must let any other group meet. That could be a Bible study group, a pro-choice group, or the Gay-Straight Alliance. The school can require that the group be open to all students, regardless of race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.
12. Can the military recruit me at school?
Schools will give your personal information to recruiters unless your parent or guardian signs a form opting you out of this. Ask your school counselor or find the form here.
13. What about visiting programs?
Usually, your parent or guardian can opt you out of visiting programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) if they do not want you to participate.
14. Can I distribute printed materials on campus?
Yes, but keep the below questions in mind:
Can I disagree with the school? You have a right to voice your opinion through printed materials such as petitions, even if the school doesn’t agree with your views.
Can I hand out petitions at school? You can distribute materials at school, as long as you don’t seriously disrupt or interfere with school activities. The school can place some restrictions on when, where and how you distribute them.
What is school-sponsored activity? Think of it as any activity that parents/guardians, students, and the community would think the school approved. So if your speech is school-sponsored, you’ll need the school’s approval.
What about controversial materials? School officials can stop you from distributing materials at school if they are deemed lewd or vulgar, could cause a serious disruption of school operations, or promote illegal drug use. There are also restrictions on distributing “promotional brochures and flyers.”
15. Does the First Amendment protect the speech rights of Internet users?
The First Amendment protects the free speech rights of Internet users, including public school students. But like other free speech rights, what you can say on the Internet is not unlimited. You should be careful about what you post online about your school and other students. And be careful about what other students post about you. Here are some things you should know:
The Internet at school: Schools can limit what you do on school-owned computers. All Hawaii schools restrict websites that include adult content, illegal activities, and other shocking and offensive content (racist/hate speech).
Can I use my own computer to talk about school? Generally, yes. However, school officials may be able to punish you if your posts disrupt school or make threats against teachers or other students — even if you do it off campus and on your own time. And be careful about what your friends post about you. If a friend posts a picture of you violating school rules, such as drinking at a school-sponsored event like a field trip, school officials can punish you if they find out.
What if they punish me unfairly? Please contact the ACLU.
16. Cyberbullying — what is it?
The DOE defines it as “electronically transmitted acts that cause mental or physical harm to other student or school personnel that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment.”
In other words, if you post comments or other content that is “intimidating, threatening or abusive” toward another student or school staff, or it creates a hostile environment at school, you could be accused of cyberbullying.
17. Can I get in trouble for sexting?
Currently, sexting is a crime in Hawai‘i if one or more of the parties is a minor. Regardless, sexting is a bad idea. Once you send out a sexting message or photo, you’ve lost control of where it can go. The person may lose his/her phone or it may get forwarded accidentally or deliberately. Once it’s out in the Internet, it can spread faster than a wildfire and it’s nearly impossible to get back.
18. Can the school teach religion?
Yes, as long as it’s for an educational purpose such as teaching the influence of religions on history, literature or culture. Teachers or school staff are not allowed to promote one religion over another, or insult any religion. Teachers can also explain “intelligent design” in some classes, but not in science class as an alternative to the theory of evolution.
19. Can the school have religious activities?
The First Amendment does not allow government — including public schools — to get involved in religious activities. Schools can’t post religious materials (like the Ten Commandments or flyers from churches). The school can’t have activities like group prayer before school-sponsored events, such as during class, a football game or graduation ceremonies — even if the students want it. A teacher might have a moment of silence in class, as long as there is a non-religious reason. If you notice your school violating these policies, please contact the ACLU.
20. I want to learn more about Title IX and Gender Equality.
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” – Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act of 1972
Boys and girls must have equal opportunities. Title IX, also known as the Patsy Mink Act, is a federal law that requires all government-funded educational programs (including athletics, career education classes, and college prep resources) to provide equal opportunities for girls and boys to participate, and to ensure equal treatment of girls and boys while they are participating in the program. Title IX also protects against sexual harassment from school officials and other students.
What does equal opportunity mean? In the context of Title IX, it basically means the following:
The ratio of male and female athletes should be roughly equal to the ratio of male students to female students.
The school must accommodate the interests and abilities of both male and female students.
What does equal treatment mean? All girls and boys sports teams sponsored by a public school must have the same quality practice/playing area, equipment, funding, publicity, coaching, and scholarship opportunities.
What are examples of unequal treatment? If the boys’ tennis team has to play on Thursday afternoons, but the girls’ team gets to play on Friday nights when more people can show up to watch.
If the boys’ football team has private donors that pay for team jackets or a banquet, and no girls’ team gets anything like that and the school doesn’t provide them either.
If the girls get the “good” gym and the boys don’t.
If the girls’ team has to fundraise to pay for trips and the boys don’t.
Does Title IX protect transgender students? Yes! Title IX protects transgender students, who must be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity; similarly, schools cannot force transgender students to wear clothes (like graduation gowns or prom dresses) that don’t correspond with the student’s gender identity. Schools must take steps to protect all students (including transgender students) from harassment and bullying on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and gender identity.
In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance clarifying that Title IX requires schools to treat students consistent with their gender identity. To read the Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students, visit here.
For more information about best practices for schools supporting transgender students, visit this website.
If I think there has been a violation of Title IX at my school, what should I do? Contact the ACLU. You can also file a complaint with the DOE’s Civil Rights Compliance Office.
21. Can school officials search my locker?
School rules state that school officials can search your locker at any time for nearly any reason, even if you’re not suspected of wrongdoing. That’s because they consider the on-campus lockers to be school property, not yours. They might even use drug-sniffing dogs. However, they can’t conduct a search for discriminatory reasons — if it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, gender identity and expression, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
22. Can school officials search me?
Not always. You are not school property or a school locker. School officials can search your person only if they have reason to believe, based on the circumstances, that you violated school rules or the law. There are other limits, too:
- No random searches of yourself or your personal belongings, like your purse or backpack.
- No strip searches.
- No bodily contact or force (unless it’s to prevent immediate harm to the health and safety of yourself or others, or if you physically resist).
- Searches must be limited to the object or objects about which school officials have a reasonable suspicion. If they’re looking for a stolen trombone, they can’t search your purse for it. But if a search turns up other things that violate school rules or the law, officials may seize those as well as the missing trombone.
23. Can I refuse to be searched?
School officials may have a right to search you if they have a reasonable suspicion. But you can tell officials that you do not consent to a search. Just respectfully say “I do not consent to a search.” Don’t resist the search, but do not consent either. This is a good idea even if you think you’re being wrongfully searched, because the fact that you refused consent could make a difference if school officials find something and you end up in court.
24. What should I do if I’m about to be searched?
If a school official like a teacher wants to search you, or search or seize your belongings, the official must:
- Allow you to voluntarily hand over the evidence;
- Tell the principal a search is about to take place;
- Make sure another school official is present to act as a witness.
But there is one exception: if the official believes immediate action is necessary to protect the health and safety of yourself or someone else.
25. Isn’t there anything else I can do to protect my privacy?
Isn’t there anything else I can do to protect my privacy? Yes. The ACLU strongly disagrees with school rules regarding searches and believes they may be unconstitutional. If you think your rights have been violated, contact the ACLU.
26. Can I opt out of vaccinations required for school?
You may be exempted from vaccinations required to attend school for medical or religious reasons only. You can get a form from your school to apply to the DOE for this exemption.
27. Can I take medications at school?
In most cases, you can take your medication at school. You must fill out a Request to Store and Administer Emergency Rescue medications of Daily, Routine, Scheduled Medications.
28. Can I see what’s in my school records?
Either your parents/guardians or yourself, if you’re 18 or older, have rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). There are four basic rights:
- The right to inspect the records within 45 days of the request.
- The right to request the amendment of records that the parent, guardian, or eligible student believe are inaccurate or misleading.
- The right to consent to disclosures of personally identifiable information contained in the records, except to the extent that FERPA authorizes disclosure without consent. One exception is disclosure to school officials with legitimate educational interests.
The right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education concerning alleged failures by the school to comply with FERPA.
29. What are my rights regarding pregnancy, birth control and abortion?
You have certain privacy rights over your own body and you can make most decisions without government interference.
From the state and private agencies:
Hawaii Department of Health: To get information on free or low-cost reproductive services through the Family Planning Health Clinics, call (808) 586-4400 or visit their website.
Planned Parenthood of Hawaii: This is a private non-profit agency that can help and provide you with more information about obtaining birth control, emergency contraception or an abortion. Call (808) 589-1149 or visit their website.
What about insurance? For childbirth, most insurers will pay the bills, and you are likely a member of your parents’/guardians’ health insurance plan. Call your insurance company if you don’t know your specific plan information. Otherwise, Planned Parenthood or the Department of Health can provide you with more information about your options.
30. What if I get pregnant?
The school can’t force you to leave school just because you are pregnant. Under Title IX, also known as the Patsy Mink Act, (see section on “Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment”), the school must allow you to attend graduation and participate in most other school activities.
31. Do I need my parents’/guardians’ consent to get birth control or STD testing or abortion? Will my parents/guardians be told?
If you are 14 and older, the answer to both questions is “No.” You don’t need parental consent to get birth control, emergency contraception, or STD testing and treatment. However, doctors are not required to keep your medical information confidential from a parent or guardian. There is an exception to this: If your clinic receives federal funding under a federal law called Title X, the clinic can’t release any information to any person (including your parent/guardian) without your consent. To find out whether your clinic receives Title X funding, please contact the clinic.
What if I’m 13 years old or younger? Then, parental consent IS required for birth control, emergency contraception, and STD testing, unless your clinic receives federal funding under Title X.
A minor of any age may consent to have an abortion – your parents/guardians do not need to be notified or give consent. Call Planned Parenthood at (808) 589-1149 if you have questions.