September 11, 2019

Back to School: Know Your Rights

With ‘Back-to-school” season upon us, here is an overview of your legal rights and protections when it comes to Bullying, School Discipline, and First Amendment Rights in public schools.


  • Massachusetts has law designed to protect students and prevent bullying:
  • Under Massachusetts law, bullying is defined as:
    • The repeated occurrence by one or more students OR school staff including administrators of written, verbal or electronic expression or physical act directed at a victim that:
      • Causes physical or emotional harm or damage of property
      • Puts the victim in reasonable fear of harm to themselves or damage to their property
      • Creates a “hostile environment”
      • Violates the victim’s rights at school
      • Disrupts the education process or daily functioning of a school

Schools are required to maintain a curriculum that addresses bullying prevention that outline

  • Procedures for reporting bullying anonymously
  • Available counseling and other services to victims
  • Specific disciplinary actions for perpetrators

More information here.

First Amendment Rights

  • First Amendment rights exist on school grounds, just as they would anywhere else. Students have the right to:
    • Speak out, distribute flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing if they do not disrupt the functioning of the educational institution or violate the school’s content-neutral policies.

In the past, courts have upheld students’ rights to wear items such as an anti-war armband, an armband opposing the right to get an abortion, and a shirt supporting the LGBTQ community. Learn more about First Amendment rights in school here.

School Discipline

  • Students in grades K-2 cannot be suspended
  • Students in grades 3-5 can ONLY be suspended if the student has:
    • assaulted another student or staff member and the principal believes that the student is a danger if they remain in school
    • possessed a weapon or drugs on school grounds
    • engaged in sexual misconduct
    • violated another’s civil rights
    • or repeatedly bullied another person

Schools must engage in professional development for all educational staff to increase the use of alternative discipline methods that don’t keep students out of school

The Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and the Boston Bar Association (BBA) have partnered to provide the public with free Know Your Rights presentations. Led by volunteer attorneys, these presentations will cover the important changes to school discipline laws that help to protect students’ rights. The presentations are part of the BBA’s work on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. If you think your school discipline rights or the rights of your child have been violated, contact GBLS at or 617-855-9560. Or to get in touch with a qualified education attorney, you can call the Boston Bar Association’s LRS at 617-742-0625, connect with an area attorney online 24/7 by clicking “Get Started” here, or by submitting an email request online today.