Discipline and Punishment - Constitutional Rights of Students

Students' Constitutional Rights: Selected Cases

Educators have to negotiate the complicated terrain of competing entities, managing difficult students yet remaining mindful of their constitutional rights, such as rights to privacy, just cause, and due process. When criminal acts in schools involve law enforcement, certain subjects, conflicts, and events may come before the courts. Courts elucidate legal issues but not once and for all: these judgments can be subsequently redefined, upheld, or found unconstitutional. Questions recur pertaining to the application of Fourteenth Amendment protections to students as these individuals are subjected to school regulations.

Issues pertaining to a student's right to privacy, to reasonable cause for search and seizure, and to technicalities about Miranda rights, all were examined in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), a case involving a juvenile (known only by her initials) who was suspected of smoking and then whose purse was found to contain cigarettes, rolling paper, a bag of hashish, and some file cards containing what appeared to be a list of amounts received for drug sales. The Supreme Court had to evaluate the relative rights of the student's right to privacy against the school's need to enforce an orderly environment. One of its conclusions was that education requires a disciplined environment and that means the authority to educate entails the authority to discipline.

In the 1986 case of In re William G., a California court decided that students as a group have the right to be protected by school officials from dangerous items or substances and to have enforced an environment conducive for learning. In many cases, the courts have to balance competing entities or claims to rights by opposite parties. In Bethel v. Fraser (1986) and again in Veronica v. Acton (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that students' rights are secondary to students' safety. These and many other cases produce the body of court decisions which evolve social understanding of the law as it applies in ever-changing circumstances.

Columbine and Its Aftermath: Zero Tolerance

On April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two heavily armed students killed twelve students and one teacher and seriously wounded nearly two dozen others before killing themselves. The following month in Conyers, Georgia, a 15-year-old student wounded six other students. In December of the same year, an Oklahoma middle-school student took a semiautomatic handgun to school and wounded five students. Although these incidents were covered heavily in the media, they were by no means unique occurrences.

These and other murders perpetrated by children against classmates and teachers have caused a furor of reactive security measures, precaution taking, and a new commitment to stringent control. Zero tolerance, which initially referred to students carrying weapons to school, fueled provisions for suspension and expulsion and increased them.

Proponents of more stringent codes point to the staggering fact that every day in the United States 12 children are killed by gunshot. The fact that one day they were gathered together in their deaths at Columbine brought national consciousness to a new level.

Many schools nationwide, particularly in urban settings, instigated entry-area body and bag searches, stricter dress codes, and random drug testing. Yet critics of this stringent disciplinary action urged educators to return to a positive vision of students and search for punishments that teach rather than using those that increase the drop-out rate.

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