Commentary


Smashing Free Speech and Turning Our Schools Into Pressure Cookers


by John W. Whitehead
May 24, 1999

During the past seven years, less than one percent of the schools across the country have experienced a violent death on campus, according to June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center. However, since the latest shooting in Conyers, Georgia and Littleton, Colorado, schools have instituted oppressive "safety" measures such as sign-in sheets, metal detectors, uniforms and unwarranted searches. As a result, many of our nations' schools now resemble prisons more than educational institutions.

The students are paying the high price for such safety, and it is costing them their civil rights. The American Civil Liberties Union has reported that hundreds of students have contacted them complaining of unlawful searches, unfair suspensions or expulsions, and even arrests. Schools are adopting zero-tolerance policies in regard to "threats of violence" or even perceived threats of violence. One Virginia middle-schooler was expelled from school for merely discussing the Littleton shootings in a manner that was perceived as threatening. The 13-year-old girl stated to a classmate that "anyone could do it, you or me or anyone." Her innocuous words were erroneously construed as meaning she "should" do it.

In Maryland, an elementary school boy slid down the playground slide yelling, "bombs away" (a phrase used by kids for decades) on the way down. He was reported, and the police came and carried him away without further investigation or questions. Fortunately for the child, an adult who had witnessed the incident was able to put the boy's comment about bombs into perspective. In New Mexico, three students were penalized for making "doodles" depicting bombs. And in Maryland, an elementary school boy cut out a drawing he had made of a gun and waved it in the air. He was suspended for the rest of the year. While zero-tolerance for fake bomb-threats or similar disruptive pranks is justifiable, the scrutiny and punishment that befell these youngsters, and dozens more like them, border on the absurd.

By sacrificing the students' civil rights for the sake of "safety," the schools are creating an oppressive atmosphere of fear and distrust. Instead of being an arena that fosters imagination and promotes the marketplace of ideas, schools are becoming mini-police states, monitoring what students wear, carry, say or learn. In South Carolina, for example, a student was interrogated merely because he was carrying a chemistry book, which administrators feared he was using to learn how to make a bomb. Other students have been targeted simply for their appearance. Again, in South Carolina, three high school students were searched because they were wearing trench coats, reminiscent of the trench coats worn by the Littleton shooters.

It used to be that the students that dressed differently only had to worry about ridicule from fellow students, but now "there is a danger that schools are interpreting being different as being dangerous." As Ann Beeson, an ACLU staff attorney, said, "Any nonconformist kid fits some sort of profile as a killer."

Proponents of these overreactive safety measures include former Vice President Dan Quayle. In a recent speech Quayle said that in the wake of Littleton, "If we're going to make an error, err on the side of school safety." He went on to attack the ACLU for investigating students' complaints that their rights had been violated as a result of the post-Littleton school safety crackdown. No one will argue that student safety is not of paramount importance. However, students' rights must not be sacrificed for temporary paranoia.

While school officials need to take all precautions to insure the well-being of their students, there must be a balance between the students' civil rights and their safety. This can be accomplished through a joint effort among concerned school authorities, civil liberties groups and students. Common sense must be the rule, not the exception. A student's right to express him/herself, whether it is through writings, speech or dress, is essential to the child's personal growth and development. To squelch those natural desires of expression is counter-productive. Like a pressure cooker that has no release, if our nations' students are submitted to such scrutiny and oppression, they may ultimately "explode"-leaving us with the exact thing that we were are trying to avoid.
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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