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The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “equal protection of the law” to all citizens. This includes students; protecting them from discrimination based on their race, color, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. 86


Harassment and bullying

anti-bullying blogHarassment and bullying are unfortunately common occurrences in schools. Two-thirds of teens report that they have been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year because of their appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability, or religion. 87

Harassment and bullying can take on many forms, such as name-calling, physical violence, and sexual intimidation and it can be by school employees or students towards students or school employees. This conduct is specifically prohibited by Utah law on school property, at school related or sponsored events, on a school bus, at a school bus stop or while traveling to a location or event. 88


Sexual harassment

Title IX, a federal law, protects students from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct serious enough to violate school rules, and in some cases, state and federal law. The harassment may come from a fellow student or a teacher, administrator, or other school staff person. The conduct can be male-on-female, female-on-male, male-on-male, or female-on-female. Sexually explicit flirting and joking among genuinely consenting students is not considered unwelcome and therefore is not harassment, although schools can limit such behavior if it becomes disruptive. 89

Students and parents are responsible for informing school officials promptly about harmful or offensive behavior. School officials who have been told about sexual misconduct, either student-on-student or adult-on-student, but do not take action, can be sued for damages. Title IX also forbids teachers, coaches or school officials from retaliating against students who report sexual misconduct. 90


Peer harassment

Title IX also protects students from severe bullying and harassment, even if it’s not sexual in nature. Students can sue a school district for ignoring their concerns and complaints of peer harassment and bullying. 91


Harassment based on sexual orientation

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the government cannot write laws that discriminate against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people. 92 However, in practice, discriminatory behavior occurs too frequently, particularly in schools, where LGBT students are targets for harassment and bullying. As a result, LGBT youth often do not feel safe at school. 93 Federal law requires that when schools are aware of or concerned about harassment based on sexual orientation, they have the responsibility to take steps designed to prevent further harassment. Indeed courts have held schools liable when they fail to stop anti-gay harassment and courts require that the schools take action to eliminate the harassment when they find a student has been abused. 94 Once again it is important to report abusive behavior to school officials. If they refuse to take action, you may contact the ACLU at or Utah Pride at to find out what other recourses may be available.


Gender discrimination

Courts have interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to also protect gender. However, courts do not treat discrimination based on gender with the same standard of review that they treat discrimination based on race.

The law requires that boys and girls have equal athletic opportunities. Many courts have held, however, that separate teams for boys and girls are allowed as long as the school provides students of both sexes the chance to participate in the sport. Courts have also held that boys and girls may always be separated in contact sports. 95

By contrast, public schools are not allowed to offer academic courses that are just for boys — like shop, or just for girls — like home economics.


Know Your Rights!

freak dancing-thumb-275x207Shane wants to go to the Homecoming Dance with his boyfriend, but the Dance committee refused to sell him a ticket. Shane complained to the principal, who said that same-sex couples may not attend the Homecoming Dance together. Can the school forbid him from attending the Dance with his boyfriend?

You have a constitutional right to bring a same-sex date to the school functions if heterosexual couples enjoy that right. In 1980, a federal court in Rhode Island decided that Aaron Fricke could go to his senior prom with a boy, and that the school had to protect the couple’s safety. 96 However, since that court’s decision, public schools often try to prohibit students from bringing their same-sex dates to school dances by requiring parental permission or by not allowing them to take part in the promenade. Both policies are discriminatory.

Read "Prom Resources for LGBT Students" from the national ACLU >>

PromIsForEveryone gifACLU of Utah Asks School Superintendents to Confirm that LGBT Students Will Not be Excluded from School Dances (11/8/11) - Recently, the ACLU of Utah received information that a lesbian couple was asked to leave a school’s homecoming dance violating their right to free expression and free association guaranteed by the First Amendment, as well as Constitution’s promise of Equal Protection. We took this opportunity to write a letter to every school district superintendent in Utah, educating them about the court decisions upholding the rights of same sex couples to attend proms and other school dances and functions in the hope that it might prevent future circumstances that could result in litigation. Read more >>



The ACLU has intervened in a number of situations in Utah to point out to schools that the right to associate with whomever one wants to is protected under the First Amendment, and that discrimination based on sexual orientation denies individuals the equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment.

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