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Testing the Limits: Your Teen's Legal Rights

In schools across the country, teens are challenging the decision-makers on free speech and privacy, drug searches and dress codes. Learn how to teach your kids a healthy respect for rules and help them understand their rights and responsibilities.
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Teen rights
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John Ritter

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.