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Avery Doninger of Burlington, Connecticut, hadn't been in trouble since the first grade, when she was scolded for blowing a straw wrapper across the room. So Avery's mom, Lauren Doninger, was shocked when the 16-year-old came home from high school one day and told her that the principal had summoned her to his office, demanding that she resign as junior class secretary and withdraw her bid to run again the following year. The reason: Three weeks earlier, after the administration canceled a battle-of-the-bands event she'd helped organize, Avery posted a blog entry from her home computer, griping about "the douchebags in the central office." She apologized in writing for her disrespectful language but refused to step down. "I'd always been involved in student government and was secretary for three years," she says. "Having a leadership role was really important to me." Lauren met with school officials, hoping to persuade them to impose an alternative punishment, but they didn't budge. Nor did the Doningers, who filed an injunction in federal district court and, when that failed, took their case to the U.S. circuit court. They lost again, but have appealed and are awaiting a decision. "This isn't just about them not allowing me to hold office," says Avery, now a 20-year-old college student. "It's about standing up for free speech."
In similar cases nationwide students are going head-to-head with the powers that be, protesting policies and practices that they say violate their rights—drug-sniffing dogs and body searches, limits on what they can post online or write in the school paper, dress codes that curb freedom of expression. At times it does seem that schools go overboard: Many, for example, have even banned hugs, hand-shakes and high-fives in an effort to create a harassment-free environment. But administrators and their supporters argue that zero-tolerance restrictions are needed to maintain order. "They keep adolescents safe," says Tom Jacobs, a retired Arizona Superior Court judge who writes about teens and the law at AskTheJudge.info. "Minors have the same basic privileges as adults, but schools have the added obligation of protecting their students."
Moms and dads have a role to play, but it can be a tricky balancing act. We want to instill respect for authority but also recognize that when our children fight back against unfair treatment, it's a milestone of maturity. "Most kids know they need rules and will follow them if those rules are reasonable," says Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D., a psychologist and author of When Things Get Crazy with Your Teen (McGraw-Hill). "Saying no, asking why and demanding justice are important ways to assert autonomy, which is what adolescence is all about." Read on for a roundup of the battleground issues, and ways to turn them into teachable moments for your teens.
Call it a study in contradiction. Our kids learn how the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches, but they're subjected to them once they step outside the classroom. Police roam hallways with drug-sniffing dogs, and security guards rifle through lockers for weapons or drugs. "All of this can make students feel like criminals, even when they haven't done anything wrong," says Bradley. And sometimes schools go too far. The Supreme Court recently ruled that officials at a Safford, Arizona, high school violated a 13-year-old girl's rights when they strip-searched her based on a another student's false tip that she had stashed ibuprofen pills in her clothes. But generally speaking, courts have given schools broad leeway, allowing them to check lockers, purses and bookbags if they suspect a violation. "A warrant isn't required to search students," says Jacobs. "Schools need only to think kids are up to no good based on something they've seen or heard."
Lesson plan: Explain to your teen that most searches are legal. Request a copy of the school's discipline policy (or find it on the school's website), and go over it together so you'll know he understands the rules and consequences, especially for possessing drugs or weapons. And should he be personally searched, ask him to tell you the details—where, when, how, by whom. Then call school officials and do the same, says Mel Riddile, Ed.D., associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "It's their responsibility to notify you and explain what happened. You want to be sure nothing improper occurred."
Teens consider cyberspace their turf—a private, no-holds-barred arena where they can say and do what they want. So they're shocked to find that blogs and social network posts meant for their friends can get them into trouble at school. In Pembroke Pines, Florida, a principal recently suspended a teen who set up a Facebook page where friends could heap abuse on an English teacher. Two years ago in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, athletes were banned from playing for several weeks when administrators got wind of Facebook photos showing the kids drinking at a party. The Internet isn't the only place where schools might pry. At Monarch High in Boulder, Colorado, officials confiscated student cell phones and read their text messages, then transcribed them and put them into their files. When the families sued, the school settled and promised not to view texts—unless there was parental permission.
The courts are divided on what boundaries administrators can cross. In Pennsylvania, judges recently issued opposite rulings in two cases—one said a middle school could discipline a girl for mocking her principal on MySpace, while another found that a similar parody was protected by the Constitution. Clearly, though, the presumption that schools can't punish off-campus behavior is breaking down. "Kids think the Internet is a legal-free zone, and it's not," says David Hudson, a scholar at Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center. "If you call the principal a sex offender on your blog and it's false, that's defamation and you can be charged with a crime."
Lesson plan: You've told your child before, and you've got to say it again: Anything she puts on the Internet is public—"like a huge billboard with her name on it," says Susan Epstein, a family therapist and founder of Parentingpowers.com. Kids can't assume that teachers won't see insulting remarks, party scenes or provocative pictures posted online or sent by cell phone; if they make the rounds in the hallways, there's a good chance officials will get wind of them. Athletes may be held to a higher standard, "especially if compromising photos of drinking are found, and they signed a no-alcohol agreement," says Riddile. He also cautions against accessing blogs or social network pages from class computers. "If you use their equipment, that makes it a school issue," he says.
Everyone knows free speech has its limits. According to a Gallup poll, 75% of teens agree they shouldn't include foul language in class assignments. But sparks can fly when schools clamp down on the open exchange of ideas and opinions. Last year in Fallbrook, California, students sued the administration when it refused to let them publish in the school paper an article that criticized an abstinence-only sex education assembly—and won. After the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to take a San Diego school to court for barring a sixth-grader's presentation on gay politician Harvey Milk, officials backed down and let her proceed, with no restrictions.
Students don't leave their free speech rights "at the schoolhouse gate," according to the landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling. But censorship is allowed if what kids say—or how they say it—is disruptive, threatens safety or infringes on the rights of others. "Often kids get into trouble saying things they think are funny," says Jacobs. A Pennsylvania jury awarded a $500,000 judgment against a middle schooler whose math teacher became distraught when the student, who created a website called TeacherSux.com, morphed her face into Hitler's and jokingly solicited donations for a hit man to kill her.
Lesson plan: Preach the importance of civil discourse. "Your child has a right to his opinion, but without being disrespectful," says Bradley. Encourage him to think about the impact of his words: Would anyone find them offensive? How would he feel if someone spoke about him like that? Schools are less likely to step in when kids express political or religious views, which are protected by the courts, unless they hurt or condemn others. And if your child is using hate speech, "take action fast," says Bradley. "Make it clear that you and the federal courts find derogatory language unacceptable."
At schools across the country, the fashion police are cracking down. An 11th-grader in Indiana was recently sent home for wearing a top printed with a Bible verse and the slogan "This shirt is illegal in 51 countries." When her mother complained that the administration was unfairly targeting religion, officials bluntly responded that all lettering and words were banned so that they didn't have to decide which messages were inappropriate. In fact, the list of prohibitions just keeps on growing: head wear, hoodies, jackets in the classroom, provocative outfits that bare any part of the three B's (breasts, bellies and bottoms). Mandatory dress codes—usually solid-color shirts and black, navy or khaki pants—are increasingly common. And many teens are breaking the rules, risking suspension and even arrest. "For kids, this is a declaration of war," says Bradley. "Clothes are about identity, and telling teens what they can't wear is the same as saying they can't be themselves." Officials say that dress codes promote safety and discipline and reduce fighting and violence. According to research by Southern Illinois University, gang-related head wear and jackets were the top two targets of dress restrictions in the majority of schools surveyed.
Lesson plan: Your child should obey the policy on gang symbols so she doesn't inadvertently wear something that could cause her harm. "Kids may not be in the know about these trends, but administrators have to be," says Riddile. "When I was principal at a school near Washington, D.C., we even had to ban plastic rosaries because they signified a local gang." Review the school code together so you both know exactly what's allowed. Detailed restrictions may seem excessive, but they tend to be most effective because they leave less room for confusion. And when your daughter complains about losing the freedom to express herself, point out that wearing a halter top or short skirt isn't the same as making a political, philosophical or religious statement worthy of constitutional protection. "Tell her it's a problem if she's calling attention to herself in way that distracts other students," says Epstein. "The bottom line is that schools have to focus on the business of learning."
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.