How a Student's Rights Differ in a Private School vs. Public School

Private school children
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The rights which you enjoyed as a student in public school are not necessarily the same when you attend private school. That's because everything pertaining to your stay at private school, especially boarding school, is governed by something called contract law. This is important to understand especially when it comes to infractions of the discipline rules or code of conduct. Let's look at the facts about students' rights in private school.

Fact: Students' Rights in Private Schools Are Not the Same as Those in the Public School Systems

The Center for Public Education notes:

"The hurdles erected by the U. S. Constitution's Fourth and Fifth Amendments are exclusive to the nation's public schools. Private K-12 institutions have far more leeway to conduct unfettered investigations, withhold findings if they choose, and unceremoniously ask a student or faculty member to leave. Tuition and employment contracts rule private school relationships, while America's social compact and legal contract (the Constitution) governs how public officials must act."

In Loco Parentis

U.S. weighs in on the subject of In Loco Parentis, a Latin phrase meaning literally in place of parents:

"As private institutions, private schools are not subject to any restrictions in terms of violations of the rights of students. Hence, while a public school might have to prove that its violations are for a higher purpose or stem from its in loco parentis responsibilities, a private school may set limits arbitrarily."

What Does This Mean for Private School Students?

Basically, it means that if you go to a private school, you are not covered by the same laws as you were when you attended public school. Private schools are covered by something called contract law. It means that schools have the right, and obligation, to act as legal guardians for students to ensure their wellbeing. Practically speaking, that also means you'd better follow the rules, particularly the ones which have serious penalties for any infraction. Participating in activities like hazing, cheating, sexual misconduct, substance abuse and so on, will land you in serious trouble. Mess with these and you will find yourself suspended or expelled. You don't want those kinds of entries on your school record when it comes time to apply to college. 

What Are Your Rights?

How can you find out what your rights are at your private school? Start with your student handbook. You signed a document indicating that you had read the handbook, understood it and would abide by it. Your parents also signed a similar document. Those documents are legal contracts. They spell out the rules which govern your relationship with your school.

Freedom of Choice

Remember: if you don't like the school or its rules, you do not have to attend it. That's another reason why it is so important for you to find the school which is the best fit for your needs and requirements.


The net effect of contract law as it pertains to students is that it makes students accountable for their actions. For example, if you are caught smoking pot on campus and the school has a zero-tolerance policy regarding smoking pot, you will be in a lot of trouble. You will be held accountable for your actions. The review and consequences will be swift and final. If you were in public school, you could claim protection under your constitutional rights. The process typically is lengthy and might include appeals.

Making students accountable teaches them an important lesson in living. Making students accountable also creates safe schools and a climate conducive to learning. If you will be held accountable for bullying or intimidating a classmate, you probably aren't going to take the chance of doing it and getting caught. The consequences are too severe.

Since every student in a private school is governed by contract law and the provisions in the contract between you, your parents and the school, take time to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations. If you don't understand something, ask your faculty adviser for an explanation.

Disclaimer: Be sure to review any legal questions and issues with an attorney.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski

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Your Citation
Kennedy, Robert. "How a Student's Rights Differ in a Private School vs. Public School." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Kennedy, Robert. (2021, July 31). How a Student's Rights Differ in a Private School vs. Public School. Retrieved from Kennedy, Robert. "How a Student's Rights Differ in a Private School vs. Public School." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).