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Student Rights


Q. A teacher in the Denver area made a vicious diatribe against President Bush, and the student who recorded it got in so much "trouble" for publishing the truth that he had to transfer schools. Is this an exception to the rule? Shouldn't student rights be paramount to teacher rights? And overall, are schools honoring the rights of students?


By and large, school systems do an incredibly good job of looking after the individual legal rights of students, especially those who are more vulnerable than other minor children because they are disadvantaged or have special learning needs.


But yes, there are incidents such as you mention, when world geography teacher Jay Bennish of Overland High School in the Cherry Creek Schools went off on Bush, capitalism, even tobacco fields in North Carolina to a class of sophomores. The 20-minute rant, said to be nearly a daily occurrence, was captured in a recording by student Sean Allen, later shared with the media, and created a firestorm of bad publicity for the district. The teacher was placed on paid leave and eventually reinstated. The student did transfer, citing intense pressure and reprisals for exposing the teacher's invective. Here's the audio:


The incident pointed out that even though minor children are a captive audience in the school setting, they still do have certain rights, and not all of them are formal. A student like Sean Allen has freedom of conscience: he recorded the teacher and published the results knowing full well that things might get ugly afterwards, and they did.


Many other student rights are just common sense: the right to hear both sides of an argument; the right to know the difference between a fact, an opinion, a belief and propaganda; and the right to learn academic content in an environment free of indoctrination, intimidation, retaliation and insult. Good teachers and administrators make sure those rights are upheld.


Beyond those, the legal rights of students are generally less than the legal rights of adult citizens in the larger world. While schools are supposed to uphold the constitutional rights of minor children, they have more leeway in dealing with them than other government officials do with adults outside schools.


For example, because of court rulings, school officials do not have to have a warrant, or even probable cause, to search a student's purse, backpack or locker. They can require a drug test before a student participates in an extracurricular activity representing the school, such as a sport.


They can suspend you or discipline you if you leave school or even a classroom without permission. Because of compulsory education laws, they can jail your parents if you aren't in school and are supposed to be.


They can discipline you for exercising your free speech rights if you "materially" and "substantially" disrupt the school day. They can make you wear a school uniform. They can track what websites you looked at on a school computer.


If misconduct is alleged, you don't get an attorney or a jury trial, just notification of what you're accused of doing and a chance to tell your side of the story.


Increasingly, because of school violence in places like Columbine High School, Littleton, Colo., school officials have adopted "zero tolerance" policies and may suspend or expel a student for writing violent poetry lyrics in an English class assignment, and although they're overstepping their bounds, they have been known to discipline students for things that they write or say outside of school property, on their own time.


Student religious rights are defended by groups such as The Rutherford Institute, emphasizing that when religious activity - prayer, Bible reading, references to God and faith - are student-initiated, that activity is fully constitutional and should be allowed and protected within school walls.


Homework: Here's an article on student rights from the American Bar Association:


And here's another list of student rights from a First Amendment and freedom of religion standpoint:


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement 39 2008

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