Know Your Rights: Back to School Edition

With the start of the new school year, it is the perfect time to review your student rights.

With the start of the new school year, it is the perfect time to review your student rights. As politicians turn to classrooms to fight bigotry-fueled culture wars, it is important to understand how new rules and laws could impact you. If you believe any of your rights have been violated or you have encountered discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. please contact our legal team at  

Oklahoma has joined other conservative run states in infringing on students’ right to receive information. The state government is censoring material it finds uncomfortable and subversive of oppressive, mainstream narratives. These efforts target lessons around race, gender, and 2SLGTBQ+ topics. In 2021 HB 1775 banned teaching about systemic inequality in publicly funded K-12 classrooms to prevent feelings of “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” This law prevents educators from accurately teaching about dark moments in Oklahoma history like the Tulsa Race Massacre or the Trail of Tears. It prioritizes the comfort of privileged groups and prevents already marginalized students from seeing themselves and their experiences reflected in Oklahoma curricula. It stifles any conversations around reparations and responsibility for these atrocities and prevents any path towards healing.  

Furthermore, the law allows parents, students, and staff to file complaints against schools and teachers who they feel violated the law. Given the vague language of the law, there is a plethora of possibilities for perceived violations abound.” As outlined in the State Board of Education’s rules, complaints could lead to the suspension or revocation of a teaching license for school staff and the loss of accreditation for the school. Downgrades in accreditation affect a school’s ability to be recognized, receive funding, and operate as an official and accepted body of public education and could even lead to school closure. Thus, underfunded and understaffed schools have no choice but to accept this and other kinds of state censorship they know will hurt students.  

HB 1775 also affects public colleges and universities. The bill prohibits mandatory “gender or sexual diversity training or counseling” on campuses. As a college student myself, I have had experience with this new law. At the private Presbyterian University of Tulsa, we had mandatory diversity and Title IX training through student led skits during orientation and an online course. My friends attending publicly funded universities (the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University) told me the only resource they received addressing these topics was a link to optional online training. Pretending that discrimination does not exist and forbidding discussion around it will not make our campuses safer. This law means that students at public universities face additional barriers in accessing information about their rights pertaining to sexual assault and other forms of sex-based discrimination.  

Beyond classroom instruction, school libraries have also become a target of censorship. The State Board of Education passed a rule mandating that K-12 schools submit their library catalogs to the Department for review and streamlining the process for book removals. The stated goal of the program is to eliminate “pornographic” and “sexualized content.” However, based on the books State Superintendent Ryan Walters points to as “inappropriate” and uses to justify the bans, the program clearly targets books with 2SLGTBQ+ themes. The rule’s true purpose was made even more obvious when Walters sent a letter to lawmakers about books to “monitor,” which include picture books for babies and toddlers, simply because they contained queer elements such as parents in same-sex relationship. And, like HB 1775, it allows parents to file complaints, which could also lead to demotion and loss of accreditations. Luckily, many are not fooled by the hatred-driven attempts to erase queer and other diverse stories. Students are forming their own banned book clubs at school to resist censorship laws.  

Queer Discrimination 
Oklahoma has enshrined the discrimination and abuse of its queer children and students into law. As of last year, transgender girls and women are not allowed to participate in girls’ and women’s sports at any public school or universities. (This ban however does not apply to trans boys and men participating in boys’ or men’s sports.) Senate Bill 615, also passed in 2022, bans students at K-12 schools from using the bathroom or facility that corresponds with their gender. Instead, it mandates that they use the one corresponding to their sex assigned at birth. These policies alienate queer and nonbinary students and deprive them of extracurricular opportunities available to their cisgender peers.   

Adding to the attack on queer children is another new rule passed this year by the State Board of Education. In addition to promoting parent intervention around sex education and queer related content in K-12 classrooms, the rule mandates school staff notify parents and guardians of any changes to a student’s gender identity. This rule ignores the needs of Oklahoma students at the cost of their safety and wellbeing and is devastating for students who do not have supportive homelives and may be subject to physical, mental and emotional abuse. For these students, school can be a place of acceptance, but these laws and regulations eliminate the vital resource of allies in teachers and staff. The harm caused by discrimination has led to increased depression and suicide rates in 2SLGTBQ+ youth.  

This rule, along with the library censorship policy, was implemented despite the Oklahoma Attorney General’s opinion due to the State Board of Education acting independently and without legislative instruction. Moreover, they are a threat to the safety of Oklahoma’s 2SLGTBQ+ students. 
Indigenous Rights 
One of the positive things to come out of the recent legislative session was Senate Bill 429. This law further protects the constitutional rights of indigenous students at public schools and universities to wear tribal regalia at their graduation ceremonies. This means students cannot be prohibited from celebrating their achievements with culturally significant adornments such as a beaded cap or eagle feather. This law is extremely important given the history of genocide and boarding schools of Indigenous people in the United States.  

Protest Rights 
The current political climate can be frustrating and make us feel powerless. However, as a student, you have the right to protest and show support for different causes. You can wear expressive clothing if it falls within the school’s dress code and pass out flyers and petitions as long as you are not disrupting classroom instruction. If you participate in a walkout, the school can punish you for missing class but cannot give you a harsher punishment because of the cause you supported through your walk out.  

Free Julius Jones Protest

Your voice matters and can yield results. Take for example the 2022 student walk outs protesting the execution of Julius Jones, whose death sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole. At the ACLU of OK, we support students in standing up for their rights at school. See here for more information.