As students head back to school, the Education Law Center (“ELC”) has compiled a number of “Back-to-School” resources and reminders about new laws and policies that families and schools should be aware of this year.
If you have questions about a particular issue at your school, please call ELC’s helpline at 215-238-6970 (Philadelphia) or 412-258-2120 (Pittsburgh).
- School Discipline
- Bullying and Harassment
- Students with Disabilities — IEP, 504 Plan
- Early Childhood Education
- Students in Foster Care
- Students Experiencing Homelessness
- English Learners & Immigrant Students
- LGBTQ & Gender Nonconforming Students
Students have the right to be enrolled in school within 5 days of submitting only 4 documents: proof of the child’s age, proof of where the child lives, immunization records, and a sworn statement of disciplinary record. Students who are experiencing homelessness or in foster care are entitled to immediate enrollment without these documents.
Schools may not require additional information before enrolling a child; e.g. they cannot require state ID, proof of citizenship nor ask for a Social Security number.
- ELC’s School Enrollment Guide
- Enrollment when a Child Lives with Someone Other Than a Parent
- Enrollment Complaint Process
Remember that charter schools are public schools and have to follow the same rules. For example, they cannot discriminate against students with disabilities by refusing to enroll students with particular disabilities or service needs. Read more coverage of recent ELC advocacy on this issue.
In a case ELC litigated last year, the Court held that once a parent has provided sufficient evidence to prove residency (e.g., utility bill, official government correspondence etc.), the burden of proof shifts to the school district to establish “non-residency” based on “substantial evidence.” Read more analysis of the case and the Commonwealth Court’s decision.
2. School Discipline
Students have important rights and protections when facing exclusionary school discipline (e.g., suspension, expulsion, and disciplinary transfer). These include the right to proper notice, the right to ask questions, the right to an appropriate hearing, and, in most cases, the right to receive education services in the interim.
- School Discipline in Pennsylvania (includes suspension, expulsion, disciplinary transfers; students with disabilities)
- Expulsion Fact Sheet (English) (Spanish)
- Weapons in School and accompanying Law Reform Alert
In response to the advocacy of ELC and partners, and recognizing the substantial harm that out-of-school suspensions cause for young students – and the significant disproportionate pushout of Black and Latinx children and children with disabilities – the School District of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Public Schools have both banned the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. ELC encourages other school districts and the PA legislature to keep our youngest learners in school.
When a student has six or more unexcused absences, they are considered “habitually truant.” Schools must take certain steps to improve attendance for habitually truant students, including holding an attendance improvement conference to identify and address the reason for absences. If these steps are taken and attendance does not improve, parents and students can face serious consequences, including fines and jail time.
As a result of advocacy by ELC and partners, a new truancy law went into effect in Pennsylvania in 2017. It requires schools to use strategies aimed at helping improve attendance, rather than punishing parents, including school attendance improvement conferences held with students and parents prior to taking legal action. It emphasizes that parents should not be incarcerated and children should not be removed into foster care for truancy, except as a last resort.
4. Bullying and Harassment
Bullying is a serious problem that can significantly impact a child’s ability to learn. All students have the right to be free from bullying in school, whether it is verbal, written, graphic, cyberbullying, or physical. Pennsylvania schools are required by law to have a written policy against bullying and must investigate and address complaints of bullying. Students have additional rights if bullying qualifies as “harassment” – offensive conduct that relates to your race, color, national origin/ethnicity, gender, age, disability, or religion. If your child is experiencing bullying, keep detailed records of each incident and request in writing that the school take action.
5. Students with Disabilities – IEP, 504 Plan
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
Students who have a disability that interferes with their learning have the right to a “free appropriate public education” (commonly called a FAPE), a planned program of education and special services that takes account of a student’s individual needs. Special education and related services must be provided by the school free of charge. Parents have the right to participate in the special education process and consent to or refuse particular services. Students with disabilities cannot be punished for behavior that is caused by or related to their disability.
- Guide for Parents and Advocates on the Right to Special Education in Pennsylvania
- Your Right to Be Free from Discrimination Based on Disability
Remember that charter schools have to follow the same rules. For example, they cannot discriminate against students with disabilities by refusing to enroll students with particular disabilities or service needs. Read more coverage of recent ELC advocacy on this issue.
If your child has a health condition, physical, mental, or behavioral impairment that “substantially limits” a “major life activity” and needs help to participate in or benefit from education or extracurricular programs, they may qualify for accommodations in school, called a “504 Plan”.
- [Coming Soon: Toolkit for Families Seeking a 504 Plan]
- What Can a Parent Do If A Child Has a Health Condition that Requires Support or Services in School
6. Early Childhood Education
Children who receive quality early education do better in kindergarten and in school overall. Publicly funded programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and Pre-K Counts offer free early childcare and education programs for children from low-income families. The Early Intervention Service Program provides additional services for children with developmental delays and disabilities at no cost to parents, regardless of income.
ELC recently won a case that clarifies the responsibility of the PA Department of Education to provide transportation to children who are eligible for early intervention services in Philadelphia. The ruling requires the Department to address its responsibility to ensure timely and safe transportation for young children with disabilities.
As a result of advocacy by ELC and its partners, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development & Early Learning (OCDEL) released two new policy announcements to address exclusionary discipline and to promote inclusion in early childhood learning programs. For more information, see OCDEL’s policy on “Reduction of Expulsion and Suspension in Early Childhood Programs” and their policy on “Inclusion of All Children in Early Childhood Programs.”
7. Students in Foster Care
Children in foster care have the same rights as all other public school students, plus additional rights to ensure their school environment is stable, even if they change living arrangements. The right to “school stability” includes the right to remain in the same school even when youth change living placements, the right to enroll in a new school immediately without the required documents, and the right to have an active, involved education decisionmaker.
ELC has collaborated with partners to develop two new interactive tools for assisting students in foster care.
Court-appointed “Educational Decision Makers” (EDMs) can have an enormously positive impact on the educational outcomes of children and youth in the dependency system. ELC helped create a toolkit of resources to help EDMs address a range of education issues including enrollment, access to special education services, and school discipline.
The Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Children in Foster Care is an interactive website for practitioners seeking to improve the law and create better outcomes for children in foster care.
8. Students Experiencing Homelessness
Students who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, including unaccompanied homeless youth, are entitled to school stability and immediate enrollment in school. The Federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 extends this right to children in preschool and provides additional protections for unaccompanied homeless youth.
- School Enrollment Guide for Youth Experiencing Homelessness
- Know Your Rights: Special Rights of Students Experiencing Homelessness in PA
- ESSA Protections for Children Experiencing Homelessness & Unaccompanied Youth
- Toolkit: School Success for Students Without Homes
9. English Learners & Immigrant Students
English learners have many special protections, including the right to learn English, the right to supports, modifications, and accommodations in their core classes, and the right to be free from harassment based on their immigration status. Parents with limited English proficiency have the right to receive information about their child’s education in a language they understand.
- Your Right to be Free from Discrimination as an Immigrant or English Learner
- Rights of English Learners & Limited English Proficient Families
A federal judge confirmed that immigrant English Learner students have the right to overcome language barriers and schools must provide sufficient ESL instruction. See news coverage of our case, Issa v. School District of Lancaster, that settled favorably for our student plaintiffs.
The School District of Philadelphia updated its policy on English Learners in January, after feedback from ELC and partners. The new policy emphasizes building on students’ home language and culture and equal access to all academic programs and extracurricular activities.
10. LGBTQ & Gender Nonconforming Students
LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming (GNC) students have the same rights as other students, including the right to be out and the right to be free from bullying and harassment. Schools must respect the right of transgender students to access facilities and programs aligned with their gender identity.
- Your Right to be Free from Sexual Orientation Discrimination
- Your Right to be Free from Gender Identity Discrimination
Courts have consistently affirmed the rights of transgender people under Title IX’s broad prohibition against discrimination based on sex and sex stereotyping. In Doe v. Boyertown Area School Dist., a federal court in Pennsylvania held that cisgender students cannot successfully use the Constitution or Title IX to prevent transgender students from accessing facilities that align with the transgender students’ gender identities. ELC stands with the growing number of school districts in Pennsylvania that have enacted clear policies against discrimination based on gender identity and committed to providing an affirming school environment for transgender and GNC students.
In January 2018, ELC filed an amicus brief arguing that students who are LGBTQ or do not conform to societal gender norms who are bullied should have protection under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), Pennsylvania’s antidiscrimination law, when their school fails to intervene to stop ongoing harassment. Read the news release here and the brief here.
And in August 2018, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission released new guidance clarifying that the PHRA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex”, encompasses not just sex assigned at birth but also sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, gender transition and transgender identity. This anti-discrimination protection applies to all public schools, including public charter schools.
The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated
to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education.
Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances
the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color,
children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English
learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness.
ELC’s publications provide a general idea of the law. However, each situation is different.
If questions remain about how the law applies to a particular situation, contact us for a referral
or contact an attorney of your choice. Visit www.elc-pa.org/contact or call
215-238-6970 (Philadelphia) or 412-258-2120 (Pittsburgh).