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Student and Youth Rights

The ACLU works to ensure that constitutional protections are extended to young people and students. 

The ACLU of North Carolina is a member of Prevent School Violence NC, a coalition of advocacy organizations, educators, parents and students who worked with North Carolina legislators to enact the School Violence Prevention Act of 2009 (SVPA). The SVPA provides strong protections against bullying and harassment for all students. The law specifically covers acts of bullying motivated by the victim's real or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disability. In response to the bill's passage, our friends at Equality North Carolina have created the School Violence Prevention Act Implementation Toolkit, which is designed to provide "critical information for students, parents and advocates to ensure that their school is living up to its obligations under the new law and doing everything in its power to create a safe place to learn."

The ACLU-NCLF and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) were contacted in May by the parent of a student at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke who wanted to wear eagle feathers on either his cap or gown during his graduation ceremony on Friday, June 13, 2008.

Samuel Bird, father of Corey Bird (pictured), contacted the organizations, seeking assistance after Principal Wilkins informed Corey that he could not wear his eagle feathers in light of a mandatory graduation dress code policy that prohibited students from wearing “[m]essages, signs, markings, stringers, ribbons, etc.” on their “cap[s] or gown[s].” Corey indicated that he wanted to wear the feathers for religious and spiritual reasons in order to honor his late mother and grandfather. When it became apparent that school officials intended to stand by Principal Wilkins’s decision to prohibit Corey from wearing his feathers, ACLU-NCLF and NARF sent a letter to the school district on June 5, 2008, urging the district to reconsider its decision. Robeson County is approximately 40% Native American, principally Lumbee, according to the U.S. Census. Consequently, ACLU-NCLF and NARF argued that providing the Lumbee and other Native American students in Robeson County an opportunity to wear their eagle feathers would signify support for this significant portion of the population. The June 5th letter also explained that there is legal authority in this federal district for carving out an exception to the mandatory dress code only for those students (and their parents) who demonstrate a sincerely-held religious belief.

In addition to sending the June 5th letter, Rebecca Headen, coordinator of ACLU-NCLF’s Racial Justice Project, and Katy Parker, Legal Director of ACLU-NCLF traveled to Lumberton for the Robeson County School Board meeting on June 10, 2008, and spoke on behalf of Corey and his father. Corey and his father also spoke at the school board meeting. In light of ACLU-NCLF and NARF intervention, the school board decided to resolve the matter informally and permitted Corey to wear his feathers at graduation.

The ACLU-NCLF was contacted by the National Conference for Community and Justice in Charlotte, an organization working with youth to help them start diversity clubs and Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs). Several students who attend high school in Rowan County have been trying to start a GSA club in their high school but have been running into problems with the school administration. Additionally, the Rowan County School Board unanimously passed a motion on April 10, 2006, to "to adopt a board policy to ban all sexually oriented clubs, gay/straight or otherwise, and to address any student emotional issues concerning the above with our guidance counselors, if the creation would materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school." However, largely because of concerns raised by the ACLU-NC, the policy is still in the drafting/revision stages and is not yet scheduled for consideration at a school board meeting. We are working hard to kill this homophobic, discriminatory and illegal measure once and for all. On June 23, 2006, the ACLU-NCLF sent letters to all principals of Rowan County high schools as well as the school superintendent, informing those school officials that the Equal Access Act requires the schools to permit the students to form these clubs. The Act specifically provides that a school cannot deny equal access to student activities because of the “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”