Students’ Rights are Limited, Not Lost at School

Timber Creek High School students enter the building on the first day of school, Aug. 24, 2015. (Photo from Timber Creek Talon)
Timber Creek High School students enter the building on the first day of school, Aug. 24, 2015. (Photo from Timber Creek Talon)

Students enter a school building prepared with their backpacks full of homework to leave with their teachers. What they don’t realize is they’re leaving something else at the doors as they enter the school.

Students rights in schools have been an issue dating back to the mid-20th century. Civil cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines, when students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, Morse v. Frederick, when students held a 40-foot poster with the phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” are among many other court cases that have taken place due to things that happened at school. These cases now are the benchmark for what rights students are given to at school.

What many students don’t realize is that they don’t “lose” any rights in school, their rights become limited. The one brought up the most is the First Amendment which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” With the protection of rights that are granted in the First Amendment, there are some limitations that students may not understand.

First Amendment Protections

With the freedom of speech there is probably the most amount of limitations. For instance, students are usually asked to watch their language when they use a word of profanity even though the student has the freedom of speech. In the court case Bethel School District v Frazier, a student was giving a speech promoting his friend to be elected for student elective. The student did so by showing sexual hand signatures, graphic language as well as talking about sexual activities. The student was called into the office the next morning and was notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of the school’s “disruptive-conduct rule.” Under the First Amendment, the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, but it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school.

Students may not understand why they aren’t allowed to say things at school because they plead the first amendment, but what they don’t realize is they have that limited. Students aren’t allowed to say things that could be considered hate speech. Hate speech is defined as “Speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” So if a student says something and that falls underneath that definition, the student may technically be breaking the law.

When dealing with religion and religious practices, schools are not allowed to promote religion. They are, however, allowed to teach about different religions. Students also are able to do their religious practices while at school.

“Students are allowed to do their own personal practices as long as it is not disruptive to the school environment,” Assistant Principal Shawn Elliott said when asked about students right to religion in school.

Recently with the issues of promposals, there has been some controversy that has taken place. On the issue of promposals, the main problem is the distraction that the promposals cause. Students have been able to get away with doing these without administrators knowing, so they didn’t get in trouble. Last year a student was told that she could not proceed with a promposal during lunch because it would cause a distraction. That then caused a huge uproar with issues of inequality, because the student was openly gay, freedom of speech and expression as well. The school must follow a set of guidelines which a part of it is the ability of students expression.

“The Code of Conduct is based on a board policy,” Elliot said. “That board policy is then based on State and Federal law, as well as previous court rulings and court mandates.”

Searches and Seizures

Another amendment that has taken on some controversy is the Fourth Amendment which states “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In the court case New Jersey v. T.L.O., a female student was searched at school, and the evidence collected was used by the state in her juvenile court case. T.L.O. was the student who was caught smoking in the school bathroom, when caught by the assistant principal she denied smoking in school. The assistant principal demanded her purse, and found a pack of cigarettes, rolling papers, marijuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a large amount of money, and a list of students who owed her money. This evidence was then used against her in her trial.

While students do have limited fourth amendment rights while at school, there must be some sort of middle ground where the school is allowed to take precautions if they deem the situation is unsafe and harms the well being of other students. The T.L.O. court case was reversed at the Supreme Court level because they stated that school officials can search a student if they have reasonable suspicion. The difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause is that probable cause means that the officer must possess sufficiently trustworthy facts to believe that a crime has been committed. Where reasonable suspicion means that reasonable suspicion means that the officer has sufficient knowledge to believe that criminal activity is at hand.

Timber Creek High School Resource Officer Jerry Miller, who is also apart of the Fort Worth Police department, said that school officials do not need to have probable cause or obtain a search warrant. If an administrator suspects that a student has drugs in his bag they are legally allowed to check the student’s bag. Officer Miller also stated that he normally doesn’t get involved in search and seizure of students property because if he does there then will be legal actions that have to take place.

These are just a few examples of how students do have their rights protected while at school, but because the schools try to keep the best interest of the student body as a whole at heart, they must limit all of student rights. They don’t take student rights away, because that’s illegal and unconstitutional — rights are just limited. So when you enter through the doors of your school, make sure you know what can and can’t happen to your rights.