Recognizing students’ rights makes for safer schools

Sunday, September 2, 2001

With the national spotlight on incidents of bullying, harassment and violence in public schools, “see you in September” has an ominous ring for many parents and students.

And for worried administrators, “school safety” is right up there with “accountability” on the list of top priorities.

In this pressure-cooker, post-Columbine era, more and more schools are taking the path of least resistance: Clamp down on student expression, police the halls and avoid controversy and conflict at all costs.

The first casualty of this approach? The First Amendment.

Consider this: Surveys released by the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development show that educators are all in favor of the First Amendment — as long as it's not in their back yard.

Only 26% of educators would allow students to report on controversial issues without prior approval of school authorities. (This flies in the face of evidence that schools with good journalism programs and no prior review have a great track record of responsible, high-quality student newspapers.)

Equally disturbing, a majority of teachers and administrators (60%) don't think students should be allowed to distribute religious materials at school. (This contradicts lower-court rulings upholding the right of students to distribute religious literature subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.)

Oddly enough, the general public would give kids more freedom in schools. More than 60% of the public would allow kids to distribute religious literature. And 40% would allow student journalists to report on controversial issues without prior approval.

Do kids already have enough freedom of expression and religion in public schools? Educators think so. More than 80% of teachers and administrators think that students have the “right amount” of free speech and religious freedom while at school.

But here again, the general public disagrees. Only 50% of the public think kids have enough freedom of expression, and only 40% think students have enough religious freedom.

Given these responses, it's not surprising that most educators (63%) say schools are doing an “excellent” or “good” job of teaching students about First Amendment freedoms. But only 30% of the general public feel that way.

Now I'm usually first in line to defend our beleaguered teachers and administrators. They are doing some of the most challenging and important work in America, and given the obstacles they face in many school districts, they're doing a tremendous job.

But putting more and more restrictions on students will not make the job any easier. Such tactics have proven to be both unworkable and counterproductive. Silencing students only breeds the very alienation and resentment that cause many of the problems in the first place.

Moreover, if you care about the future of our nation, teaching about freedom in civics classes is not enough. Without meaningful opportunities to exercise their rights responsibly while in school, students are unlikely to become the free and responsible citizens needed to sustain democratic freedom.

Public schools need to understand that the First Amendment isn't part of the reason for unsafe schools, it's the solution that helps to create safer schools. When students, parents, administrators and teachers have a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school, all have a real stake in creating safe and caring learning communities.

At least that's the contention of “First Amendment Schools: Educating for Freedom and Responsibility,” a new initiative launched this fall by ASCD and the First Amendment Center.

One of the first goals of the initiative is to find 10 “project schools” across the nation willing to help develop an educational model that fully applies First Amendment principles in schools. (For more information about becoming a First Amendment School, visit

A quick look around the world today provides stark reminders that repression is no guarantee of safety. Societies that deny people the fundamental freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition are the most unsafe, dangerous and oppressed societies on earth.

Immigrants from these authoritarian nations arrive in the United States seeking safety in freedom. But this promise of America can only be fulfilled if the lessons of freedom are taught in ways that instill civic virtue and responsibility. That's why schools must be laboratories of democratic freedom — places where all members of the school community, including students, learn what it means to practice democracy.

Much is at stake. What Abraham Lincoln said in 1862 remains true today. With all of our flaws and challenges, the American experiment in liberty is “the last, best hope of earth.”

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