New initiative seeks to link school safety with First Amendment rights

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

ARLINGTON, Va. — First Amendment freedoms and school safety are not incompatible, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center, two organizations that are launching the “First Amendment Schools Project.” This multi-year initiative is designed to demonstrate that upholding First Amendment rights and responsibilities is the most effective way to create safe and caring learning environments.

The initiative gets under way this fall with a search for “project schools” across the country that will help develop an educational model that applies the principles of the First Amendment in schools. Applications are currently being accepted and the schools selected will be announced in May 2002.

“Violence and conflict in our nation’s schools over the last few years have prompted educators to impose more and more restrictions on student speech and behavior,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “But students can’t learn how to be responsible citizens if schools become more like prisons. Schools must be laboratories for democracy where students learn to exercise their rights with responsibility.”

The initiative comes at a time when two surveys released by the center and ASCD show that many educators and much of the general public have minimal knowledge of the First Amendment. (One in five educators is unable to recall any of the five freedoms associated with the First Amendment, compared to nearly half of the general public who could not name a single freedom.)

In addition, educators and the general public strongly disagree on the amount of First Amendment freedom students should be allowed to practice in school, as well as on the quality of First Amendment education students are receiving. Survey results:

  • Most educators (63%) say the American educational system is doing an “excellent” or “good” job teaching students about First Amendment freedoms, compared to just 30% of the general public who feel that way.
  • 86% of educators say students have the “right amount” of freedom to express themselves in school, compared to 50% of the general public.
  • Only 26% of educators say students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities, compared to 40% of the general public.
  • A majority of teachers and administrators (60%) don’t think students should be allowed to distribute religious materials at school, compared to 40% of the general public.
  • A majority (80%) of educators say students have the right amount of religious freedom while at school, compared to just 40% of the general public.

“Given the important interest educators have in discipline and safety, it isn’t surprising that many teachers and administrators are reluctant to risk a robust application of First Amendment freedoms by students during the school day,” said Gene Carter, executive director of ASCD. “But we will never have ‘safe schools,’ much less a safe society, unless all members of the school community, including students, are engaged in the task of creating free and responsible communities of learning.”

The First Amendment Schools Project has four primary goals:

  • Create consensus guidelines and guiding principles for all schools interested in creating and sustaining First Amendment principles in their school.
  • Establish project schools, in every region of the nation, where First Amendment principles are understood and applied throughout the school community.
  • Encourage and develop curriculum reforms that reinvigorate and deepen teaching about the First Amendment across the curriculum.
  • Educate school leaders, teachers, school board members and attorneys, and other key stakeholders about the meaning and significance of First Amendment principles.

To achieve these goals, the First Amendment Schools project serves as a national resource for all schools — K-12, public and private — interested in affirming First Amendment principles and putting them into action in their school communities.

“Our aim is to help parents, students and educators work together to develop safe and caring school cultures that stress civic responsibility, intellectual openness, personal freedom, and mutual respect.” Carter said.

For more information, contact ASCD’s Mike Wildasin, 703/575-5475, or the First Amendment Center’s Sam Chaltain, 703/284-2808.

The surveys were based on telephone interviews conducted by The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The survey of the general public included 1,012 adults, ages 18 or older, conducted May 16, 2001 through June 6, 2001. The survey of 900 teachers and 902 administrators was conducted Jan. 16-31, 2001. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Founded in 1943, ASCD, an international, non-profit association, is one of the largest professional development organizations for educator leaders. It provides world-class education information services, offers cutting-edge professional development for effective teaching and learning, and supports activities to provide educational equity for all students. ASCD’s 165,000 members reside in more than 140 countries and include principals, teachers, superintendents, professors of education, and other educators.