October 27, 2010

By Lindsay Kee

This past week, 17-year-old Jordan Binion commit­ted sui­cide in Wash­ing­ton state, the lat­est in a dev­as­tat­ing wave of teen sui­cides attrib­uted to bul­ly­ing by class­mates. Cer­tainly we can’t blame schools for all of the prob­lems youth face today. But the recent increase in very sad, very vis­i­ble deaths begs the ques­tion: When bul­ly­ing is tak­ing place, do stu­dents have the right to expect relief from their schools?

Just as our soci­ety func­tions bet­ter when we all have a clear under­stand­ing of our rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties, so do schools — micro­cosms where stu­dents are arguably learn­ing to be respon­si­ble and active citizens.

The Bill of Rights pro­tects indi­vid­ual rights — like free­dom of speech, the right to pri­vacy and free­dom of reli­gion — from intru­sion by all gov­ern­ment enti­ties, includ­ing pub­lic schools. The Con­sti­tu­tion also requires that peo­ple receive equal pro­tec­tion under the law, and it doesn’t place age require­ments on these rights.

The answer to the bul­ly­ing ques­tion, by the way, is that once stu­dents or par­ents have reported bul­ly­ing, the school has a legal respon­si­bil­ity to stop it. How­ever not all stu­dents, par­ents or, sadly, even school offi­cials real­ize that this is the case. But bul­ly­ing is just one arena where stu­dents and school offi­cials don’t always real­ize their rights and responsibilities. Every year the ACLU is con­tacted by numer­ous young peo­ple who have ques­tions about their rights.

Learn more about rights

Like the hon­ors stu­dent who was drug-tested mul­ti­ple times as a pre­req­ui­site for her par­tic­i­pa­tion in cho­rus. Or the stu­dent who was threat­ened with sus­pen­sion for some­thing he posted online crit­i­ciz­ing the prin­ci­pal. Or the young man stopped by police at a local fast-food restau­rant because his school said that stu­dents couldn’t go there after school. Or the 13-year-old who was strip-searched in an attempt to find prescriptionength ibupro­fen that was banned under school pol­icy. Or the stu­dent pre­vented from prac­tic­ing his daily prayer because the des­ig­nated time for it fell in the mid­dle of his­tory class. They all wanted to know — could their schools do that to them?

The courts, which are charged with inter­pret­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion, have gen­er­ally ruled that the rights of pub­lic school stu­dents can be reg­u­lated to a greater degree than the rights of adults to ensure that the edu­ca­tional process faces min­i­mal dis­rup­tions. As a result, pub­lic school stu­dents have fewer con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions than adults. But stu­dents do have rights. The lim­i­ta­tions on these rights make it even more cru­cial that stu­dents and admin­is­tra­tors under­stand the con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions that young peo­ple do have.

High school stu­dents wish­ing to develop a deeper under­stand­ing of their rights both in school and on the street are invited to attend the ACLU-TN Stu­dents’ Rights Con­fer­ence on Oct. 30 at the Youth Oppor­tu­nity Cen­ter (1702 Char­lotte Ave., Nashville) from 9:30 a.m.-3:15 p.m. The con­fer­ence is free, but stu­dents must pre-register by Oct. 29 here.

Lind­say Kee is ACLU of Ten­nessee com­mu­ni­ca­tions manager.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on Oct. 27, 2010.