Last night I read the complaint in the ACLU’s lawsuit against Minnwaska Area Schools. It left me absolutely livid that a public school district – once again – decided that it could discipline students in school for non-threatening off-campus speech. But the district’s egregious conduct did not stop there, it seems. District personnel allegedly also demanded the middle school student’s Facebook login and e-mail login and searched her e-mails and non-public Facebook activity and then disciplined her for that, too.
How can we tell parents to teach their children to respect their own privacy when schools violate it repeatedly – and violate our children’s constitutional rights in the bargain?
When my children were young, I taught them about their constitutional rights. Yes, we actually had conversations at our dinner table about the Bill of Rights and what it meant to them. And they knew not to just suffer invasions of their rights – or attempted invasion of their rights – in silence.
And so, one day, my daughter came home and told me what an administrator had done and said when she tried to exercise her First Amendment rights. “Was I wrong, Mom?” she asked me, because she was furious and embarrassed by how she had been publicly chastised and criticized by the administrator. “No, you weren’t wrong,” I told her. “The administrator was.” And so I called our local chapter of the ACLU and spoke with them about the incident. They kindly offered to represent my daughter should we wish to pursue the issue. In this case, I decided to forego a litigation approach in lieu of another approach that demanded that the District mend its ways and respect the First Amendment. The District, having been sued by me in the past over other civil rights violations, knew I would follow through if they didn’t.
But the incident scarred my daughter. She was embarrassed in front of her peers, and she never again felt safe in that school to engage in protected speech.
It could have been worse, I guess. She might have been suspended by the constitutionally-challenged administrator. At least any suspension would have been based on in-school conduct – unlike the poor kid in Minnesota who said and did nothing on school property and yet wound up repeatedly disciplined.
So, parents. teach your children well. Teach them their rights and teach them that if they are ever pulled into an administrator’s office because they are allegedly in trouble, they should politely tell the administrator or district personnel, “I will not answer any questions unless my parent(s) or lawyer are present.” And instruct them to repeat that and say nothing else despite what the school personnel say. And if school personnel demand to search their bag or demand their login to accounts for anything less than imminent bomb threat, teach them to say, “I object to any search and do not consent until my parent(s) or lawyer are present to advise me.” Of course, schools may be able to search anyway, but I would have them verbalize their objection to the search to create a record that it was a warrantless search over the student’s objections.
Seriously. Have them practice saying it over and over so that if or when they need it, they know what to say and do.
In the meantime, the U.S. Dept. of Education needs to get off its governmental tuchus and instruct schools that they need to respect students’ rights to protected speech and an off-campus life. This notion that students have fewer rights has been taken too damned far by a long shot. Schools have a right to search if there are imminent threats to safety or for violation of school rules, but even that has limits.
If you don’t know your child’s rights, you might want to download this handout from the ACLU and discuss it with your children.