Know Your Rights

Table of Contents:

Sexual Discrimination and Violence/Title IX
Transgender Student Rights
Disabled Student Rights
Student Civil & Privacy Rights
Contract and Consumer Rights

Sex Discrimination, Sexual Assault & Title IX Rights

Sexual assault, violence and discrimination are significant issues faced by many of America’s college campuses. And while experts continue to propose various remedies to resolve these problems, it is important for students to know that there are a number of laws and regulations in place to protect their rights if they become a victim of sex discrimination or violence during their time at college. Three of the most significant of these federal legal protections are discussed below.

Title IX

The laws and regulations falling under the Title IX heading are at the heart of federal legal protections against sex discrimination, sexual assault, and sexual violence. Passed into law by Congress in 1972, Title IX was originally enacted to ensure that women would receive equal treatment in regard to education and related activities by prohibiting discrimination based on sex by educational institutions or programs receiving federal funding. Title IX applies to all schools receiving federal funds, whether public or private. Specifically, Section 1681(a) of Title IX states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…”

Although best known for its application to collegiate sports, Title IX’s statutory reach is quite broad, applying to, “all aspects of education programs or activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.” Title IX has been interpreted through court decisions and DOE guidance to include a wide range of issues including sexual harassment, sex-related violence, sexual preference discrimination, transgender discrimination, discrimination due to pregnancy, parenting or marital status, and more. Areas of application include recruitment, admissions, housing, field of study (math, science, technology, vocational, etc.), and many others.

Title IX and Athletics

Collegiate athletic programs and activities are considered educational programs and activities and are covered under the protections of Title IX. In practical terms, this means that collegiate athletes must be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports, regardless of gender. The sports or teams themselves need not be identical, but there must be an equal opportunity to play. Athletic scholarship funds must also be available to male and female athletes in proportion to their athletic participation. Additional equitable benefits include access to coaching, equipment, travel and per diem funds, facilities, housing and dining services, publicity, and promotions.

Title IX, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault and Violence

Sexual harassment, generally defined, is “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” While sexual harassment includes all forms of sexual assault and violence, it also includes a variety of behaviors such as written statements, verbal acts, cyberbullying, unwanted advances, sexual touching, spreading sexual rumors, stalking, voyeurism, exhibitionism and physical threats. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by almost anyone, including school officials, faculty and staff as well as fellow students and peers. Court decisions have confirmed that Title IX protections apply to acts of sexual harassment and that schools have an obligation to address sexual harassment issues and incidents.

First and foremost, sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. Students who are victims of any form of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, attempted or completed, fall within the protections set out in Title IX. DOE guidance details the rights of student victims of sexual violence. They include, among others:

Prompt and Effective Response to Sexual Violence

A student victim of sexual violence has the right to report the incident to his or her school, have the school investigate the incident and have the complaint resolved promptly and effectively. The victim may report the incident to campus authorities and/or local law enforcement. A criminal investigation by law enforcement does not, however, relieve the school of its Title IX duties to respond promptly and effectively to a student’s complaint.

Schools must adopt and publish its procedures for resolving complaints of sexual violence and ensure that its students are made aware of resources available to them, such as legal assistance, victim advocacy, academic support, housing, health services, and others. Schools should identify to and inform victims of confidential services including counseling, advocacy and academic support.

Interim Measures

Once a student informs his or her school of an incident of sexual violence, he or she has the right to immediate help including changing classes, housing and transportation. The school must also provide the victim with immediate protection, even before completion of its investigation of the incident. The victim additionally has the right to report any retaliatory acts by the alleged perpetrator, faculty or other students, and the school is required to take strong action in response to such retaliation.


Schools are required to conduct an “adequate, reliable, and impartial” investigation regarding any incident of sexual violence reported. Student victim rights regarding the investigation include (among others): the right to be notified of the timeframes of the investigation; the right to present evidence and witnesses; the right to have any proceedings documented; and the right to be notified in writing of the outcome of the complaint and any appeal.


If an investigation reveals the presence of a hostile environment resulting from sexual violence, the school must take prompt and effective steps to end the violence, eliminate the hostile environment and prevent their recurrence.

Issues regarding sexual assault on campus are being dealt with by colleges in a number of different ways. Examples of colleges taking steps to deal with the sexual assault issue include:

  • Publish an Annual Security Report that explains in detail the school’s policies, procedures and activities for security and crime prevention on its campuses.
  • Maintain a daily log of crimes reported to the school.
  • Maintain statistics on, and provide a breakdown of, incidents of crime occurring on or near its campuses.
  • Immediately notify the campus community of any “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus”.

Clery and Campus SaVE Acts

The Clery Act (full title: The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act) is a federal statute that mandates all colleges and universities that receive federal funding to collect and maintain information regarding crime on or near their campuses, including crime statistics and campus security policies, and share that information on an annual basis with students and employees, both current and prospective, along with the general public.

Enacted in 2013, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, or Campus SaVE Act, is the name given to a group of amendments to the Clery Act known as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) amendments. The Campus SaVE Act expanded the scope of the Clery Act’s requirements regarding schools’ responding to and reporting on crimes involving rape, acquaintance rape, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

Together, the Clery and Campus SaVE Acts (in conjunction with Title IX) require schools to adhere to a number of related policies and provide several victim support-related services. Schools must provide victims of the crimes described above with a written explanation of their rights and options. Those rights and options include: disciplinary process rights; assistance with notifying law enforcement (if the victim wishes to do so); and options to change housing, working and transportation situations.

To be in compliance with the Clery Act, schools must:

  • Publish an Annual Security Report that explains in detail the school’s policies, procedures and activities for security and crime prevention on its campuses.
  • Maintain a daily log of crimes reported to the school.
  • Maintain statistics on, and provide a breakdown of, incidents of crime occurring on or near its campuses.
  • Immediately notify the campus community of any “significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus”.

If You Are Sexually Assaulted at School

If you become a victim of sexual assault or violence while at college, consider taking the following steps:

  • Get to Somewhere SafeYour first concern should be your immediate safety. Get away from your assailant and find secure place, preferably with other people.
  • Speak to SomeoneAs soon as possible following the incident, contact someone who can help you. If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, consider contacting your campus or local police department, or call 911. If you are not comfortable with contacting the police, there are a number of alternative choices including your school’s health center or office of student affairs. The key is to inform someone who can help as soon as possible.
  • Seek Medical AttentionWhether you think you need to or not, you should consider seeking immediate medical help at a hospital emergency room, urgent care center, doctor’s office or campus health center.
  • File a ComplaintYou may wish to file a complaint with your local police department. Whether you do or not, you should strongly consider filing a complaint with your college campus. Check your school’s website or contact its office or student affairs to determine exactly where to file your complaint.
  • Understand and Take Advantage of Your Legal RightsAs discussed above, federal law and school policies provide student victims of sexual assault and violence with a variety of legal rights and options. Check your school’s code of student rights or speak with someone in your school’s Title IX office or office of student affairs for an explanation of those rights and option. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of any and all of the rights available to you including counseling, changes in housing, academic schedule and transportation, and legal representation.

Learn more about campus safety

If You Experience Sexual or
Gender-Based Harassment or Discrimination

Consider the following steps if you become a victim of sexual or gender-based harassment or discrimination:

  • Understand Your RightsConsult your school’s website or contact its Title IX office or office of student affairs for information regarding your rights under Title IX and your school’s code of student rights and responsibilities. Speak with your campus’s Title IX or student rights coordinator if you have any questions or are unclear regarding any aspect of your rights.
  • Keep RecordsMaintain a written record of all incidents of harassment and discrimination, the more detailed the better. Include dates, times, locations, names of witnesses, etc.
  • File a Title IX ComplaintRemember that schools are required by law to receive your complaint, as well as investigate and follow up on that complaint. Consult your school’s code of student rights and responsibilities or speak with your Title IX or student rights coordinator regarding the policies and procedures for filing a complaint.
  • Consider Legal RepresentationYou may also want to speak with an attorney regarding additional rights you may have and options you may pursue.
  • Follow-upIf you are dissatisfied with the results following the decision on your complaint, consider an appeal per your school’s stated procedures. If nothing happens after you file your complaint, you may want to consider filing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Remember that you must file your complaint within 180 days of the last act of discrimination.
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Transgender Student Rights

As discussed briefly above, recent court decisions and Department of Education guidelines have made clear the Title IX rights and protections extend to issues regarding transgender students. Additionally, state and local statutes, such as anti-bullying laws, may apply. Currently, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have laws in place prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Notwithstanding a few jurisdictions’ attempts to defend acts of transgender discrimination (such as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”), the implications of Title IX and related laws and regulations state strongly that, as with sexual harassment and discrimination, gender-based harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated on college campuses, particularly those receiving federal funds.

10 Examples of How College and University Transgender Students Are Protected under Title IX and Related Laws

  1. Under Title IX, schools are required to treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex. This means that students must be treated according to how they identify their gender. This is true even if the student’s records or identification documents indicate a different sex.
  2. Schools may not require legal or medical evidence from students as evidence of their gender.
  3. In certain cases, schools may offer nonvocational single-sex classes and extracurricular activities. When offering such classes or activities, however, schools must allow participation to transgender students consistent with their gender identity.
  4. Transgender students have the right to be placed in campus housing according to their gender identity. Students should also check to see if their school provides the option of gender-inclusive housing.
  5. Transgender students have the right to use campus restrooms and locker rooms according to gender identity, although some schools may be exempted from this policy. Some schools may additionally provide gender-inclusive restroom facilities.
  6. Title IX guidance makes clear that transgender students have the right to not be bullied or harassed because they are transgender. Schools are obligated to take action to end such bullying once they become aware of its existence.
  7. A school is in violation of Title IX if it limits a student’s educational rights or opportunities by failing to take reasonable steps to protect his or her privacy relating to gender status, including his or her name or sex assigned at birth. Schools must keep records regarding student information on gender status confidential unless it has a legitimate reason not based on gender bias. For a general discussion of student privacy rights, see below.
  8. Transgender students have the right to change their educational records regarding their name and gender marker. They are also entitled to a hearing to challenge the content of records that they believe are inaccurate, misleading or otherwise in violation of their privacy rights.
  9. Schools may sponsor and operate sex-segregated athletic teams. They may not, however, adopt or adhere to requirements that rely on “overly broad generalizations or stereotypes” regarding differences between transgender students and others of the same sex, or others’ “discomfort with transgender students.
  10. Schools may not discipline a student or exclude him or her from school activities for appearing or behaving in a manner consistent with his or her gender identity, or in a way that does not conform to “stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”

Source: U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Educational Association: Legal Guidance on Transgender Students’ Rights What to Do if Your Rights Are Violated as a Transgender Student

Consider these steps if you feel your rights as a transgender student have been violated:

  • Know Your Rights As with all Title IX protected subjects, it’s important to have a clear understanding of just what rights are available to you as a transgender college student. Visit your school’s website for information on Title IX as well as your rights under your school’s code of student rights and responsibilities. Contact your campus Title IX office or office of student affairs with any questions you may have about your rights as a transgender student.
  • Contact Your School If you believe your rights have been violated, you may want to contact your school’s Title IX office or office of student affairs to let them know. They may be able to help resolve your issue without the need if filing a formal complaint.
  • File a Complaint with Your School If your problem cannot or is not resolved informally, the next step is to file a complaint with your school. Check your school’s code of rights and responsibilities or contact its Title IX office or office of student affairs for information on how to file your complaint and the subsequent procedures once your complaint is filed.
  • Contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) The OCR is authorized to investigate complaints claiming discrimination and/or retaliation by a covered entity (schools receiving federal funding).
  • Consider Legal Action in Federal or State Court Whether or not you file a complaint with the OCR, you may wish to pursue a legal remedy in federal or state court. Consult with an attorney to gain a better understanding of your rights under federal and/or state law.   [Back to Top]

Disability Rights

Pre-college students and their parents are likely quite familiar with the benefits and services afforded them through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). What they may not know, however, is that IDEA does not apply to postsecondary education programs and institutions. Federal regulations regarding the rights of disabled students in college are found primarily in two places: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The services provided through these statutes vary greatly from those afforded by IDEA, so it is important that college-bound students and their parents develop a clear understanding of those differences and what rights are now available to them.

Section 504

Section 504 prohibits discrimination in the participation in programs and activities of students with a physical or mental disability by educational institutions receiving federal funding or other federal assistance. Under Section 504, schools are required to make the “appropriate academic adjustments” or accommodations necessary to ensure the equal opportunity of disabled students to participate in a school’s programs. Section 504 imposes a number of requirements and restrictions regarding how schools operate in relation to their disabled students. Examples of accommodations disabled students may expect include:

  • Highlighted textbooks and extra textbooks for home use
  • Assistance with note taking
  • Computer aided instruction
  • Rearrangement of class schedules
  • Substitution of non-essential courses to complete degree requirements
  • Tape recording of classes
  • Addition time for completing coursework and tests
  • Modification of physical facilities (such as access to classrooms, housing and other campus buildings and offices, etc.)

Title II

Title II of the ADA prohibits state and local government entities from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities” in regard to programs, services and activities provided by those entities. In practical terms, Title II extends the prohibition against discrimination of disabled students afforded by Section 504 to all state and local governments (including public colleges and universities) regardless of whether they receive federal funding or not.

What to Do if Your Rights Are Violated as a Student with a Disability

Consider these actions if you have experienced a violation of your rights as a disabled college student:

  • Understand Your Rights It’s always important to start with a clear comprehension of your rights as a disabled college student. Read through the language of Sections 504 and Title II. Check your school’s website for an explanation of the rights and services your school affords its students. Meet with your campus’s disability services coordinator.
  • File a Grievance with Your School Your school is required to have a stated procedure for the filing and handling of grievances, which can typically be found on the school’s website or in a written publication. If you decide to file a grievance, be prepared to present any and all evidence you have to prove your grievance.
  • File a Complaint with the OCR If you wish to pursue an alternate path for remedy of your grievance or if you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your school’s grievance procedure, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
  • Consider Action Through the Courts Another alternative is to file suit in court. Consult with an attorney to obtain a clear understanding of your rights within the court system and how to proceed.

First Amendment Rights: The Foundation of the Rights of American Citizens

At the foundation of student rights, as with all other individual rights in the United States, are the Constitution and its first 10 Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Of particular significance in the discussion of college student rights are the protections afforded under the First Amendment (speech religion, press, assembly, redress of grievances) and the Fifth Amendment (due process).

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to a comprehensive analysis and discussion of the Constitution as it relates to education and student rights. Included among its abundant resources is this 

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Guide to Due Process and Campus Justice.

Right to Privacy in College

Although not specifically expressed in the Constitution, the right to privacy is said to be “alluded to” via Supreme Court decisions in the language of a number of Constitutional amendments, particularly the Fourth Amendment. This implied right of privacy is applicable to all U.S. citizens including, of course, college students. The federal government has additionally enacted statutes, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to further codify and clarify certain privacy rights for students.

Right of privacy issues of particular concern to college students include those related to due process, equality, autonomy, safety, privacy, accountability in contracts and advertising, and others. Areas of particular concern include:


Students living in a college dormitory may be surprised to learn that their right to privacy within their room and other dorm facilities is more limited than they might expect. Court decisions regarding student privacy in dorms tend to favor the college’s rights to enter and search such premises for a number of purposes including the health and safety of students and for the enforcement of school regulations.

Student housing agreements often contain provisions for broad entry and search rights on the part of the school and courts have, for the most part, upheld these provisions. Students planning to live on-campus or off-campus in college-owned housing should be aware of these limitations on their privacy expectations and read their housing agreements carefully.

Academic Records

When it comes to many issues concerning student privacy rights, the courts have always approached the subject as a balance between individual student privacy expectations and the schools’ duty to protect the health and safety of all students. This has been the case in regard to student academic and related records. Under FERPA, schools are generally required to obtain written consent from a student before disclosing his or her personally identifiable information.

There are, however, a number of exceptions to this general rule including those involving health and safety emergencies, law enforcement, disciplinary incidents and collection of data per Clery Act requirements. In regard to records disclosure to parents, the general rule is that, with a few exceptions, once a student turns 18 years of age or enters a postsecondary school at any age, all privacy rights under FERPA pass to the student alone.

Health Information

Privacy issues regarding student health records maintained by a school’s health services department fall under FERPA rules. FERPA mandates that schools distinguish between “treatment records” and “education records.” Education records created and maintained by a school’s health services department must be treated like all other academic records in regard to privacy. Different rules apply to treatment records, however.

The general rule is that schools must obtain the student’s written consent before disclosing treatment records to others but may disclose those records without written consent under a limited number of circumstances (sharing with other healthcare providers, emergency situations). Disclosure may also be made to parents without the student’s written consent under the same conditions as education records.

Online Privacy Protection

With the ever-increasing use of online personal accounts (social media, personal finance, etc.), a greater concern for personal privacy and security for those accounts has arisen. In particular, maintaining the privacy of such accounts for students and employees is crucial. In the case of college students, those concerns have to do with attempts by education institutions to require or coerce students into disclosing login information for personal online accounts.

In the past several years, a number of states have enacted laws meant to address these privacy intrusions issues. Additionally, the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) has adopted the Uniform Employee and Student Online Privacy Protection Act (ESOPPA), a proposed uniform state law on the issue. As of this writing, no state legislature has yet enacted the ESOPPA or a substantially similar proposal into law. It is likely, however, that such legislation will be coming in the future. 

How the Department of Education
Helps Protect Student Civil Rights

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is tasked by the Federal Government with ensuring equal access to education and, “promoting educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.” Primary to its mission is the prohibition of discrimination on campuses receiving federal funding in the following areas:

  • Race, color, or national origin
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Age

Individuals or organizations may file a complaint with the OCR, for themselves or on the behalf of another if they believe they have been a victim of discrimination while pursuing their education. Complaints can be filed online on the OCR website.[Design: Callout box/sidebar

College Students & Contractual Rights

Contractual relationships are created between students and education institutions in any number of situations. These relationships typically become binding on both the educational institution and the student (if the student is over the age of 18) at the time of the agreement, normally upon signing. Once binding, certain rights and obligations are created for the contractual parties. The following are three specific contractual relationship issues that students should be particularly aware of:

  • College Enrollment Contracts A relatively recent phenomenon (particularly with for-profit online schools) is the college enrollment contract. College enrollment contracts are commonly used to protect the financial and commercial interests of schools by limiting the rights and remedies a student might otherwise have against a school concerning any number of issues (fraud, failure of the school to make good on promises of subsequent employment, etc.) Contract language to be particularly concerned with includes forced arbitration clauses, “go-it-alone” clauses and gag clauses. Students are advised to pay close attention to the specific language in a college enrollment contract and to seek legal advice if they do not understand any part of such a contract, before signing.
  • Student Loan Rights Student loans are a fundamental necessity for the majority of college students in the United States today. They can, however, open up a Pandora’s box of troubles if the student taking out such loans does not have a strong understanding of his rights and obligations under his or her loan agreements. Students are strongly advised to read their loan agreements carefully before signing, particularly when it comes to private student loans. For students taking out federal loans, there are several rights to be aware of including, among others, the right to loan counseling, the right to defer payment, right to loan forgiveness, right to change the payment schedule and the right to contact the loan servicer. To learn more about the specifics of federal loans and student rights, go to the Federal Student Aid website.
  • Student Aid Bill of Rights In March of 2015, by way of executive action, President Obama introduced the Student Aid Bill of Rights. The purpose of the Student Aid Bill of Rights is to help “ensure that college remains affordable and student debt remains manageable.” Features include provisions for a “state-of-the-art” complaint and feedback system; help for borrowers to repay their loans and avoid default; and fairer treatment for struggling and distressed borrowers. [Back to Top]