The schoolhouse gate has long been considered a symbolic threshold at which students must surrender some of their constitutional rights in order to preserve an environment of learning. But recent media reports of the actions of several public schools across the nation point to a disturbing trend. The schoolhouse gate is being interpreted to stretch well beyond the doors of the school building itself and all the way to the doors of students’ bedrooms — an expansion of school authority that needs to stop.
In the nearby Lower Merion Township, high-school student Blake Robbins filed a lawsuit last week against the school district for its ability to remotely and covertly activate webcams on laptops that schools had issued to students. In the lawsuit, Robbins alleged that an assistant principal had disciplined him for “engag[ing] in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam.”
Besides the host of privacy and ethical concerns that this incident raises (which the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are now investigating), the case is also noteworthy for the school district’s alleged attempt at extending its influence beyond school property and school hours and into the personal lives of students. If Robbins’ claims are true, then the Lower Merion School District tried to unjustly stretch its authority into a realm that has no relevance to the schools’ educational purpose.
A similar intrusion of school authority occurred in Chicago last week when high-school officials suspended a student for creating a Facebook fan page for “anyone who has had a bad experience or plain dislikes” a certain teacher and for referring to that teacher “in a derogatory way,” according to The Chicago Sun-Times. But hurt feelings alone are no reason for the school to curtail a student’s right to free speech after school. Thankfully, a federal judge recently ruled that a high-school student from Florida who had been disciplined for similar reasons in 2007 can sue her former principal to have the suspension removed from her record.
Schools’ efforts to expand their authority have been bolstered by the landmark 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, in which the Supreme Court allowed school officials to punish a high-school student for displaying a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at an off-campus event. But such decisions unfortunately have a long history in American law. In the 1859 case Lander v. Seaver, the Court ruled in favor of a school-master who punished a student for calling him “old Jack Seaver” in front of other students (although it was after school and off school property), claiming that using such “saucy and disrespectful language” undermined the authority of the school-master.
A typical justification for these decisions is the schools’ ability to act in loco parentis, or in place of parents. But this concept is inherently flawed — there is no exchange of authority from parent to teacher; a teacher’s authority is derived from the State. Public-school teachers are not substitutes for parents; they are representatives of the government.
If Robbins’s webcam-surveillance allegations are true, “you’ve got a government agency intruding on people’s homes without consent,” said Penn Law professor Polk Wagner. “I’m not sure how successful [the defense of acting in loco parentis] would be.”
Students’ surrender of civil liberties on school property is similar to citizens’ surrender of certain rights during airport security. In both situations, the government temporarily restricts constitutional rights while providing an essential service to the public. But, just like the authority of an airport security guard no longer applies when a person exits the airport, a teacher’s authority should have no impact on a student’s personal life off school grounds.
If students are forced to surrender their rights at the schoolhouse gate, school officials must surrender their authority there as well.
Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Political Penndit appears on Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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