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Public schools versus the Fifth Amendment

May 30, 2013

AP_Documents_BillofRightsOne of the many things that should be theoretically taught at our public schools is the documents this country was founded upon. This includes how the Constitution is a framework meant to give limited powers to the Federal government. Also included would be teaching about the Bill of Rights and how these first Ten Amendments restrict the government from overstepping the bounds of each individuals natural-born rights. I am beginning to wonder if this happens at all because it does not appear public schools understand the Bill of Rights as it applies to them. Some recent news story’s revolving around public schools make it seem the opposite is true: instead of teaching the Bill of Rights they are working against students understanding their natural-born rights.

For this post lets look at one case involving the Fifth Amendment. Illinois high school teacher John Dryden was recently disciplined for informing students of their Fifth Amendment rights. This happened after a questionnaire was handed out to students asking them about risky behaviors, including illegal activities. If this survey had been anonymous there would have been no issue. However each of these mandatory questionnaires required the students name. Because the name was required Mr Dryden decided it would be appropriate for students to know about their Fifth Amendment protected right against self-incrimination. For this act Mr Dryden received a “written warning of improper conduct” and his pay was docked.

The really bad part of this story is that the school does not acknowledge Mr Dryden was right. Here is part of the statement from Batavia School Superintendent Jack Barshinger:

“In this case, district teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists and others worked together for over a year to select a data-gathering instrument that could be used to determine what social or emotional issues our high school students are experiencing, and whether individual students could benefit from new or increased supportive intervention by our staff,”

There are a couple of things that are quite clear from the Superintendents statement. First, there were a lot of people involved in this survey. I don’t think this was an active attack upon the Fifth Amendment by those involved. Instead I believe the well-intended culture of the teachers, social works, guidance counselors,  etc… prevented them from seeing the moral and legal implications of what they were doing. Because this survey was done ‘for the children’ those involved believed they were doing the right thing. With their ‘ends justify the means’ attitude those involved simply don’t understand that it is not OK to ignore the natural-born rights of American citizens.

Some would say the Fifth Amendment does not apply because the information is not intended to be used in a criminal fashion. That claim falls empty. Receiving data about who does and doesn’t become involved in illegal activity would allow the schools police officer to focus on ‘problem kids’. The questionnaire could be used to conduct targeted locker searches or get warrants to search the children’s homes. Is that likely to happen? I don’t know. But the Bill of Rights were setup to prevent such situation from even happening.

Another thing that is clear from the superintendents statement is the belief that schools much “intervene” anywhere they see fit. It is not the job of the school to determine what activities (legal or illegal) the students are involved in when they are not on school grounds. Outside of the school it is the responsibility of parents to teach students right from wrong. If a student comes to a teacher or guidance councilor and asks for help that would be a different issue. However that is not the case. This is a situation where the school feels it is their job to interject into the private lives of students/citizens. Any American citizens that  believes in social freedom should see such situations as an overstep in authority by the government.

Going forward I believe the culture within public schools must be examined. I do not believe the case with Mr Dryden was a conscience attack upon the Fifth Amendment. Instead I believe well intended people working for the school district failed to understand the legal and moral implication of their actions. When a teacher was brave enough to point out the rights of citizens (even children) he was punished by the very same school district that behaved wrongly. Perhaps it is time for teachers and other public workers to take constitutional classes themselves.

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