By Judge Tom Jacobs, author of What Are My Rights? Q&A About Teens and the Law
On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine delegates gathered in Philadelphia and signed a document establishing the basis of our government and way of life. The U.S. Constitution has endured for 227 years and remains a vital part of life in the United States in the 21st century.
What does this document mean to you? Does it affect your daily life as a teacher, and if so, how? Are educators bound by its provisions? How do the rights of students interplay with school officials?
The Constitution does not stand alone. It must be read together with its twenty-seven Amendments, which were ratified between 1789 and 1992. The first ten Amendments, referred to as the Bill of Rights, apply to everyone regardless of age.
Three of the Amendments play a significant role in education. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech and religion, freedom of the press and association, and a right to petition the government. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Consequently, the First Amendment applies to teachers and students, and both enjoy the freedoms set forth therein as well as the responsibilities thereunder.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Educators are faced with new challenges due to technology and the advent of digital privacy. The courts are striving to catch up with technology while teachers deal with serious legal and privacy issues regularly. The Fifth Amendment provides teachers and students with due process and specific protections when involved with the criminal justice system as an adult or juvenile.
The freedoms guaranteed under these amendments are not absolute; there are limits depending on the circumstances. A balance must be struck between the rights of each student and the responsibility of a school to provide a safe learning environment for everyone on campus. Since the landmark 1969 Tinker decision, state and federal courts have considered thousands of cases brought by students and school administrators that have challenged school rules and policies.
The current status of school law and privacy rights can be gleaned from a few examples of recent cases. Discuss these issues with your students and see if they appreciate how the Constitution and Bill of Rights affect their lives.
- In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that a search warrant is generally required before searching a cell phone taken from someone under arrest. The logic and reasoning of the Court may be applied to the school setting whereby teachers and principals need “reasonable suspicion” that a rule or law has been broken before searching a student’s cell phone.
- “Reasonable suspicion” must also exist before a school official conducts a search of a student’s person or personal belongings (backpacks, purses, car, etc.).
- Schools are prohibited from demanding a student’s password to social media accounts unless a danger to a person or property exists.
- Cyberbullying by a student against a classmate or administrator may result in suspension, expulsion, or a referral to the police for prosecution. The First Amendment does not protect all speech. This applies to teacher-on-student bullying as well. What teachers text or write online, especially concerning their students, could result in disciplinary measures by the school and ultimately termination of their employment.
- Some states authorize school officials to use corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure in controlling student behavior.
- School dress codes are legal but must be enforced without discrimination. For example, a school that permits message buttons and T-shirts may ban wearing a symbol of the Confederate flag if, considering the climate on campus, it constitutes “fighting words” (incites an immediate physical response).
- A school may refer a student and the parents to juvenile court when chronic truancy jeopardizes a student’s education.
Teachers and administrators can research these issues and how they’re addressed in their state by referring to the school district’s policy manual as well as by following protocol to obtain legal advice from the district’s lawyer.
As you can see, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are living documents that we cherish and celebrate on September 17, 2014. They form the basis of our individual rights, and without them our world would be very different. Take a moment with your students to reflect on more than two centuries of struggle to preserve our way of life in the United States.
Thomas A. Jacobs, J.D., is the author of three Free Spirit books, including Teen Cyberbullying Investigated. He was an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1972–1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for ten years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges.
Visit Judge Jacobs’s website, Askthejudge.info, for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens. It’s the only site of its kind to provide legal questions and answers for teens and parents with the unique ability to interact with Judge Jacobs and other teens.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.