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.
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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.