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December 12, 2016

Letter to Superintendents Reminds Districts of Legal Obligations and Offers Recommendations to Ensure Safe and Supportive Campus Environments

Los Angeles, CA—Reacting to a significant nationwide increase in politically-motivated bullying of  students on the basis of race, religion, immigration status and sexual and gender orientation, the ACLU of California has sent a detailed letter to the state’s school superintendents laying out key points of anti-discrimination law and offering guidance on securing an inclusive educational environment.

The letter was delivered Monday night to every superintendent in the state. It reminds them that under state and federal law, each district must provide all children equal access to school regardless of immigration status, and that districts “have an affirmative duty to protect students from discrimination and harassment whether perpetrated by district employees or by students.”

The letter goes on to issue a wide-ranging set of recommendations to help districts achieve an equitable educational environment. Among them:

  • Issue messages to the entire campus community – administrators, educators, parents and students – that unlawful discrimination will not be tolerated;
  • Designate schools as sanctuary “safe zones” for students and families with irregular immigration status;
  • Refuse voluntary information-sharing with federal or immigration agents and prohibit staff, campus security or campus police from divulging information regarding the immigration status of students or their family members;
  • Provide anti-harassment training for staff and students, and employ restorative justice strategies to combat bullying, harassment or other discrimination.

“The ACLU of California is firmly committed to shaping positive school climates, which are essential to quality education,” said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, director of education equity for the ACLU of California. “Our recommendations are intended to help districts take swift, affirmative steps to ensure that vulnerable student groups receive the support they not only deserve and need, but that which districts are legally obligated to provide.”

While emphasizing that districts must defend students against “the troubling, recent, and significant increase in reported incidents of fear, concern, and hateful actions such as racial slurs, taunting, and intimidation of students across the country,” the letter cautions superintendents to be cognizant of free-speech rights.

“Harsh ‘zero-tolerance’ policies are not effective at combatting identity-based harassment and discrimination and can easily lead to unlawful violations of constitutional protections for student free speech and an unhealthy school environment,” the letter explains. “[…] However, schools can prohibit speech that crosses the line into prohibited harassment when it is so severe, pervasive, or targeted at particular individuals that it hinders classmates’ ability to get an education, significantly harms their well-being, or substantially interferes with their rights.”

The letter notes that the guidelines and recommendations it sets forth are particularly important as the new federal administration prepares to take office. “Although we do not yet know what new educational policies the presidential administration of Donald Trump will pursue in the next few years, we share your goal to protect students and hope to do so collaboratively,” it says.

“Our schools should be a sanctuary, a place of learning for youth, not a place for immigration enforcement or harassment,” Torres-Guillén said. “We are calling upon superintendents to affirm their commitment to defend their students' civil rights and ensure that school remains a safe place for immigrant students and families. Every district should adopt policies to establish schools as sanctuaries to ensure a safe, supportive and healthy environment for students in a holistic, thoughtful and effective manner.”

More resources and information from the ACLU of California on students’ rights are available at

The ACLU of California is a collaboration of the three ACLU affiliates in the state: the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.