There's no question about it: schools need to be safe, and students need to feel safe.  Both are important.  But in the name of school safety student rights have taken quite a battering.  Many schools around the country now more closely resemble prisons than places where young people not only learn about constitutional rights, but are encouraged to use them.

Zero tolerance for weapons and drugs

In the early 1990s, school districts around the country passed "zero tolerance" policies that were aimed at weapons and illegal substances.  That might seem to make a lot of sense.  But they often failed to allow school officials sufficient flexibility to deal with specific cases, especially where first-time offenders and very young students are concerned.  And all too often, what appears to a school principal to be a "weapon" (plastic knife in a lunch basket?) or a "drug" (over-the-counter medication?) is seen in a different light by the student who possessed it – assuming that the student was even aware it was among his or her belongings in the first place.

Because of the "one strike and you are out" approach to education, tens of thousands of students, including young teens or pre-teens, have been deprived of an education, sometimes or a year or more at a time.  And around the country, students of color have been disproportionately subjected to school searches, suspensions and expulsions.

Zero tolerance for expression

After the Columbine killings of April 20, 1999, there was an unprecedented crackdown on student rights.  Around the country, there were reports of students being suspended, expelled and arrested for jokes, doodles, remarks taken out of context or made on home web sites, or for wearing black clothing, trench coats or baggy outfits to school.

Here are some examples of over-reaction in the name of "school safety."  In South Carolina , a student who was taking a chemistry class was asked what a chemistry book was doing in his book bag. A 9-year-old lover of martial arts movies in Ohio was suspended for writing "you will die an honorable death" in a class assignment asking students to develop fortune cookie messages.  In Maryland , a student who was trying to deal with her anxieties about the Columbine horror by writing about it in context of her school was suspended indefinitely and had her room at home searched by the police. 

In Massachusetts , a student was suspended for work written in a playwriting class before the shooting, in which students plan to blow up a school.   Also in Massachusetts , a 15-year-old "inveterate doodler" (as his mother called him) was suspended for penciling "Trench Coat Mafia" in the margin of a math assignment.  Another Massachusetts student was questioned by the police and indefinitely suspended when he said that a certain boy was "on his list."  He had not meant "hit list," but did not want to say "shit list" with a teacher within earshot. 

Sometimes the mere appearance of a student was perceived to be "threatening."  In Colorado , a male student who wore eye makeup was taken to the school office and questioned by a police officer: "What would you have done different if you had been one of the shooters at Columbine?"  The policeman took his photo and told him "all Goths are suspect."  In Virginia , a young man who had attended school with blue hair since the previous December was suspended in late April until his natural color grew out. 

Then there is the case of Sarah Boman, an honor roll student at Bluestem High School in Leon , Kansas .  A gifted artist, Boman frequently put up her artwork on the school walls for other students to see. 

Some time after the Columbine shootings, she posted an artwork poem written in a spiral pattern on a classroom door.   The piece was an example of "repetitive art" required for a portfolio she was intending to submit for entry in a college's art department, and had been created at the suggestion of a teacher at that college.

Before the day was out, she had been suspended.  On January 10, 2000 she was expelled for the rest of the school year and told she needed a psychological examination before returning to school.  Her transgression?  The poem, written from the point of a delusional person whose dog had been killed, included the line: "I'll kill you if you don't tell me who killed my dog."  In the era of zero tolerance, this was seen as a "threat" – and the fact that Boman did not herself have a dog failed to persuade the school authorities to permit her to remain at the school.

There is one case which neatly symbolizes the failure of many school officials to recognize the constitutional protections that have been too quickly forgotten in the era of zero tolerance.  In 1969, the Supreme Court had upheld the right of students to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War (see "People who took a Stand").  School officials at Allen High School in Allen , Texas seemed oblivious to this ruling when they suspended Jennifer Boccia for wearing a black armband to school to protest restraints on free expression in the wake of Columbine, and for talking to the media without permission.  Jennifer and about ten other Allen High students decided to wear the armbands out of respect for the Columbine victims, and because they were concerned that their schools' policies restricting speech, dress and conducting random searches would create a hostile environment at school.  The settlement of the federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of Jennifer Boccia gave her a resounding victory.  

Solutions that work

Boccia and the other students were calling attention to a fact that school authorities around the country have too readily overlooked in the rush to install metal detectors, surveillance cameras, more security guards and other "quick-fix" solutions to the problem of potential school violence.  Preventing students from expressing their differences of outlook, style and opinion, the Allen High students were saying, contributes to a pressure-cooker environment that may further alienate those who already feel excluded.   Repression, far from making schools more "safe," may actually do the opposite by shutting down communication and cutting off avenues for the expression of student frustrations. 

At a conference for high school students in Boston held shortly after the Columbine killings, students had plenty of ideas about how to make schools safe.  The key, they said, lies in improved communication. 

There must be better communication across the board: among students and teachers, students and administrators, students and other students, and parents and school officials and teachers.  Students must feel they are not being regarded as potential troublemakers, but as young people who have something to contribute to the running of the school.  They should be encouraged to express their opinions about what they see to be problems, and to help formulate solutions.  In short, problems should be openly addressed, and not swept under the carpet or pushed out the door.    

How Students and State Legislatures Have Resisted Hazelwood  

Does the US Supreme Court always have the last word on student rights?  Not necessarily.  State constitutions might be more protective of student rights than the Bill of Rights as interpreted by the Supreme Court.  And state legislatures can decide to pass laws giving students more rights than those laid down in a Supreme Court decision.

That is what happened in some states after the US Supreme Court handed down its 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier giving school authorities broad new power to censor "school-sponsored" student speech.   Students around the country got organized to push for protection for their First Amendment rights. 

In Massachusetts , three months after the Hazelwood ruling, more than 100 high school students came to the State House in Boston to testify in support of a bill that would shield them from the impact of the Supreme Court ruling.  Students talked about how important it was to them to express themselves in their school newspapers without fear of censorship.  They declared that if they are not taught to appreciate their rights when they are young, they might not value them when they are older.  Some expressed the fear that Hazelwood would produce an apathetic student body. 

Legislators were very impressed by student arguments, and Massachusetts became the first state to respond to the Hazelwood decision by passing an act protecting the rights of students to free expression.  The "Massachusetts Student Free Expression Act" had been a "local option" since 1974 – that is, towns could decide whether to adopt it.   Seven months after the Hazelwood decision, the legislature made the Act mandatory on all school districts in the state.  In Massachusetts , the Tinker standard prevails. 

Legislatures in Colorado , Iowa , Kansas , and Arkansas passed similar legislation, and California had an act protecting student free expression that predated Hazelwood.  Other state legislatures passed bills through only one house.  In Illinois , both houses passed an anti-Hazelwood bill, but the governor vetoed it. 

Since the mid 1990s, as instances of censorship steadily rose around the country, momentum to pass legislation protecting student First Amendment rights stalled.   Then the Columbine killings of April 1999 put student free expression rights on the back burner.

For more on anti-Hazelwood legislation: