Know Your Rights for Students

Every student has the right to learn in an environment where they feel valued and can think for themselves. This fundamental promise of our democracy is under attack in Virginia. But you have the power to stop it.

Below are some frequently asked questions about students' rights in school, including topics such as bathroom access, sports team, affirming name & pronouns, Pride displays, and students' right to protest. Scroll for more information about your rights and what you can do to advocate for yourself and your peers.

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For the latest updates on the Youngkin administration's VDOE 2023 model policies, check out this action hub.

Q&As for Students

Protections for Trans and Nonbinary Students

LGBTQ+ students deserve to be safe and welcome at schools. 

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If you are not sure if your school district has policies in place to protect trans and nonbinary students, check Equality Virginia’s School Board Policy Tracker under their Safe Schools Campaign. The tool will let you know when your school board next meets and how to sign up for public comment. 

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) issued the 2023 model policies that replace existing model policies for the treatment of transgender students in Virginia's public schools. All public schools were supposed to adopt VDOE’s original evidence-based, trans-affirming policies by the 2021-2022 school year. Instead VDOE issued new policies that medical and educational experts say could cause real harm to LGBTQ+ young people by creating a hostile and potentially dangerous environment.  However, these harmful policies will not be implemented by localities until school boards adopt them. 

School boards continue to have an obligation to create safe, inclusive school environments for all students by adopting policies that protect trans and nonbinary youth in compliance with state and federal law. The 2023 model policies do not change that. For the sake of LGBTQ+ students in your community, it’s critical that you show up at your school board meetings and make your voice heard. Rally your classmates, teachers, parents, friends, and other allies to join you. 

Sports teams

Transgender and nonbinary students should be able to participate in sports as their authentic selves just like everyone else.  

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Every student, including LGBTQ+ students, has the right to participate in sports as required by Title IX. 

Both federal case law and guidance afford protections to transgender and nonbinary students to participate in sports consistent with their gender identity. School districts may not ban students from participating in sports because of their gender and courts have found that it is unconstitutional and a violation of Title IX for school districts to discriminate against transgender students.  

In Virginia, there is no law that explicitly prohibits transgender or nonbinary youth from participating in sports. In fact, at least six transgender athlete ban bills have been introduced in the Virginia legislature over the last two years and all six of the bills died. Trans athlete ban bills target transgender student athletes, in particular transgender girls, and allow for invasive practices on minors and gender policing, practices that disproportionality impact Black athletes.   

Regardless of gender, having the opportunity to participate in sports results in positive outcomes for students, outcomes like better grades, greater homework completion, higher educational and occupational aspirations, and improved self-esteem. Trans students participate in sports for the same reasons other young people do: to challenge themselves, improve fitness, and be part of a team. Excluding trans students from participation unfairly deprives them of opportunities available to their peers.  

Transgender and nonbinary student-athletes exist in Virginia. They have been playing sports with their cisgender peers for years and have been following participation policies for at least a decade. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) oversees interscholastic sports for over 300 high schools and 200,000 student-athletes. VHSL sets criteria for participating schools regarding high school trans athletes – not individual schools or school districts. You can find the criteria and appeals forms for students who want to compete on sports teams consistent with their gender identity under VHSL’s “Forms/Info” here

Bathroom Access

Trans youth should be allowed to use facilities that coincide with their gender identity just like everyone else. 

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All students deserve the ability to safely use and have access to restroom and locker rooms.  

The U.S. Constitution and Title IX prohibit school districts from denying transgender students access to school facilities. Transgender students should be allowed to use facilities that coincide with their gender identity just like everyone else. In the landmark case Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the appeals court that includes Virginia, ruled the Gloucester County School Board violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution when it prohibited Grimm, a transgender student, from using the same restrooms as other boys and forcing him to use separate restrooms.  

Some transgender students may choose to access alternative facilities like gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms, but school districts cannot force this. Doing so not only violates federal and state law, it stigmatizes youth, makes them targets of bullying and harassment, and may even out trans youth. Some have argued that allowing trans youth to access facilities consistent with their gender identity places cisgender youth at risk of violence. These fears are unfounded and rooted in harmful myths about transgender people. Thousands of transgender students have used school bathrooms and locker rooms without issue. The unfortunate reality is that transgender youth are more likely to experience violence, bullying, and harassment compared to their cisgender peers. It is essential then that school districts meet their legal and moral obligation to keep schools a safe environment for all students, including transgender students.   

Forced Outing

No student’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be communicated to someone without their consent. 

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We believe that requiring school employees, including counselors, to out students who question their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a serious violation of student privacy. It ignores the devastating harm that LGBTQ+ youth may experience and puts school staff in an impossible situation. 

Fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary students feel their home is gender-affirming, according to a study by the Trevor Project. We must trust and respect young people’s decision of when and to whom they want to share their authentic selves. Failure to do so not only erodes LGBTQ+ youth trust at school, but potentially places them at risk of violence at home or even homelessness.  

In Virginia, some school districts are considering or have adopted the 2023 Model Policies which prohibit school districts from protecting students against forced "outing" to their parents in most circumstances. The 2023 Model Policies also require school personnel who offer mental health services related to gender or gender identity to obtain parental approval before support can be offered. This requirement creates an unnecessary and harmful barrier that potentially forces youth and school personnel into an impossible position of outing students or denying them life-saving mental health support. You can learn more about the 2023 Model Policies at our Protect Trans Kids hub.  

Under federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or “FERPA”), parents have a right to inspect their child's educational records. If it’s documented in a student’s educational file, this may mean that parents have access to information about a student's gender identity, affirming name, pronouns, or bathroom and locker room accommodations. It’s critical that you help school board members, school administrators, and those around you understand the harm of forced outing LGBTQ+ youth. 

Name & Pronouns

Transgender and nonbinary students should be addressed as their authentic selves just like everyone else.

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Transgender and nonbinary students should be addressed as their authentic selves just like everyone else. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated that a school official’s failure to address a transgender student by their chosen name and pronouns may be considered sex-based discrimination under Title IX.  

No matter your identity, all students deserve to have their identity respected. You have the right to attend school free from harassment or discrimination, including harassment in the form of your peers or teachers intentionally using a different name than the one you prefer. You should also be able to address any harassment that you do face, including from teachers and school staff. If you’re being harassed or discriminated against, you should consider writing down details about the incident and/or telling a trusted adult.  

In Virginia, the question of whether a teacher may deadname and/or misgender trans youth is currently playing out in state courts and school boards.  

The 2023 Model Policies prohibit teachers and school staff from calling students by their affirming names and pronouns unless there is written permission from a parent. Even when a parent provides written permission, the policies still suggest teachers and staff can disregard a parent's written instruction and misname and misgender students in the classroom based on their own personal beliefs. You can learn more about the 2023 Model Policies at our Protect Trans Kids Hub

In December 2023, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a major decision on this issue in the case Vlaming v. West Point School Board. The case involves a public-school teacher, Peter Vlaming, who refused to comply with school policy requiring transgender students be addressed by the pronouns consistent with their gender identity and refused to address a transgender student in his classroom by his affirming pronoun. As a result, the school dismissed Vlaming. Mr. Vlaming challenged the dismissal, arguing that being forced to use the student’s pronouns violated his free speech and free exercise rights under the Virginia Constitution. The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the dismissal of Mr. Vlaming's lawsuit and sent the case back to the lower court to reconsider under new standards articulated by the Supreme Court. The ACLU-VA is still analyzing this major decision and plans to provide more information and guidance for the community soon.

Nondiscrimination Protections in Education

LGBTQ+ people belong in our Commonwealth, today and every day.

Does Virginia have nondiscrimination protections in education for LGBTQ+ people?

Yes. In 2020, Governor Northam signed into law the Virginia Values Act, which added nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations to the Virginia Human Rights Act. Public accommodations include Virginia public schools.  

For more information about the Virginia Values Act, check out Equality Virginia’s FAQ.  

After-School Clubs

LGBTQ+ students deserve safe spaces where they can come together to share their experiences.

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LGBTQ+ students deserve to feel safe and welcome at schools.  

Gender & Sexuality Alliances or Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) are student-organized clubs that serve multiple purposes and are open to LGBTQ+ students and allies. GSAs help combat harassment and create a space where students can come together to share their experiences, discuss anti-LGBTQ+ harassment they may experience at school, and debate different perspectives on LGBTQ-related issues. Being able to talk openly and honestly with each other is essential to making young people feel safe at school and build community with their peers.  

The federal Equal Access Act (EAA) requires high schools that receive federal funding to treat student clubs, including GSAs, the same as other clubs. That means if your high school allows students to form other student clubs, your high school cannot prevent you from forming a GSA.   

School Events

LGBTQ+ students have the right to attend and enjoy all school events like prom and homecoming.  

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School districts that refuse to allow same-sex dates to school events are excluding LGBTQ+ students from participating fully and comfortably in school life. Federal cases like Fricke v. Lynch and McMillen v. Itawamba County School District ruled that any school policy excluding same-sex couples from proms or school dances violates the right to free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  

School administrators have a legal obligation to implement policies that do not limit a student’s ability to take a date to a school event based on the gender of the student or their date. 

Book Removal

Students should be able to read and learn about the history and viewpoints of all communities – including their own. 

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Book banning attempts frequently target the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), as well as LGBTQ+ people. But erasing these narratives doesn’t help anyone: stories about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people are for all audiences. They help people who don’t share those identities better understand the experiences of people who are different from them. And they help those who do share those identities feel seen. Love, empathy, and understanding help everyone, and banning books is counterproductive.   

Pride display

All students, including LGBTQ+ youth, have the right to express who they are and what they believe in.

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Students have the right to freedom of expression. 

Displaying Pride symbols, or wearing Pride material, is one way to exercise your First Amendment right to free expression. Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established a precedent for students’ free speech rights: the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  

But this freedom is not unlimited. Student speech or expression MAY NOT significantly disrupt classes or interfere with the rights of others. You have the right to wear expressive symbols at school as long as you do not disrupt school or violate school policies that don’t hinge on the message expressed. What counts as “disruptive” will vary by context, but a school disagreeing with your position or thinking your speech is controversial is not enough to qualify. 

Courts have upheld students’ rights to wear things like an anti-war armband, an armband opposing abortion, and a t-shirt supporting the LGBTQ+ community. But schools can also have rules that have nothing to do with the message expressed, like dress codes.  

For example, a school can have a rule forbidding students from wearing hats – because that rule is not based on what the hats say. But it can’t prohibit you from only wearing Pride hats.   

Clothing & Attire

All students must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression. 

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All students, whether transgender or cisgender, must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression.  

While public schools are allowed to have dress codes and uniform policies, they cannot discriminate against certain students or censor student expression. That means while dress codes may specify types of attire that are acceptable, these requirements may not differ based on students’ gender, race, religion, or other protected characteristics.  

Under federal laws protecting against discrimination in education, public schools cannot enforce a dress code based on gender stereotypes about appropriate dress or appearance. For example, a school cannot require girls, and only girls, to wear skirts or dresses, or require boys, but not girls, to wear short hair. This also applies for special events and occasions like dances, graduation, and yearbook pictures. For example, while a school can require “formal attire” to be worn at prom, it may not require that girls, and only girls, wear gowns – or that boys, and only boys, wear suits.  

Dress codes that are unevenly enforced against trans and nonbinary students may violate laws prohibiting discrimination.  

Student Protest

Students do not lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates.

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You do not lose your right to free speech just by being a student. You have the right to speak out in any capacity, big or small – as long as you don’t disrupt school functions or violate your school’s content-neutral policies.   

Understand that “disrupting school” will vary by context, but a school disagreeing with your position or thinking your speech is controversial or in “bad taste” is not enough to qualify. Content-neutral policies are rules that don’t have anything to do with the message you’re expressing, such as dress codes.   

Your school may discipline you for participating in a walkout. Virginia law requires students to go to school – so if you miss class, you may be penalized. However, you can’t be disciplined more harshly than you otherwise would be because of the political nature or message behind your action. The punishment you could face will vary by your state, school district, and school.