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First Amendment rights and students

By camr43554 Apr 08, 2014 2348 Words

I am Afraid We Have Awakened a Sleeping Giant

In many of today’s developed nations we take pride in the fact that it has become a standard for children growing up to attend school in order to receive a formal education. This monumental accomplishment is very new to human history that now there exists a global movement that believes that regardless of gender, race, or economic status everyone deserves the right to pursue an education. Reform in educational practices has been a fairly common practice. Much so that not only do parents and students alike expect change, they demand it. In the past fifty years we have watched literacy rates reach an all time high, and the age of information, also referred to as the computer age, has rooted a deep technological understanding into the minds of students all around the world. In order to achieve this much progression surely the standard of living for students must have improved dramatically, right? On the contrary a recent national survey by USA Today reports that the level of students reported living with extreme levels of stress caused by their learning environments. (Jayson) Around the country students are being forced to adapt to today’s high academic standard. In order to do so, schools are using intimidation to take first amendment rights away from students because the rights of the majority are overlooked due to the actions of the few.

The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of religion, the right to peacefully assemble, and freedom of expression from government interference. The first time a major incident occurred within a school system in the United States over students First Amendment rights was in the Supreme Court Case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School System. Originally, in December of 1965 three students were disciplined by their schools administration for openly displaying their disapproval over the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. They were harassed by their fellow students as well as school faculty. The three students were suspended from school, and within days the parents of the students took legal action against the school board claiming the actions of the school were in violation of the students First Amendment Rights. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court where eventually it was decided that “First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment” (Justice Fortas) The reason this case has significance is because now students have documented protection that guarantees that they are not allowed to be deprived of their First Amendment rights just because they are on school property. Fast forward to November 2011, I was a Junior in high school, and all over the news was coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. During these peaceful protests students at the University of California Davis had joined in protesting when Police Lieutenant John Pike made national news by spraying pepper-spray at point blank range into the faces of twenty-one students who were in a seated position with linked arms. Public outcry spread around the country, and a demand for legal action against the officers involved seemed the only appropriate response. In the following months Officer Pike was removed from the force, but in 2013 shockingly Pike was awarded $38,000 as workers compensation because he filed for psychiatric damage from the 2011 incident which resulted because of his actions. (Gorman) The students who were pepper sprayed while protesting were breaking no laws because the First Amendment protects their right to peacefully assemble. However the University of California Davis still decided that they wanted to defend Officer Pike regardless of the message this would send to their students. The actions of the University make it clear that causing physical harm to students who wish to peacefully express their opinions about public reform is completely acceptable under today’s policies. In many ways the faculty at University of California Davis diminished everything Supreme Court Justice Fortas worked for to protect students rights in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1965. Protesters were disbanded by use of unnecessarily extreme force, and there is now proof that the actions of Officer Pike are viewed as completely acceptable by today’s standards. Around the same time the University of California Davis incident was underway I was witnessing my own fellow students at Westford Academy all the way across the country having their rights stripped from their curriculum. Westford Academy is a public high school located in the growing town of Westford, Massachusetts. As a school that prides itself with the accomplishments of the student body there has at the same time become an overwhelming increase of families who move to Westford in part because of its school system. With this change in population the school has had to adapt to the number of students who attend this once small high school. During the change there have been many incident where unfavorable decisions have been made where the student body has felt as though they were being attacked, and in certain cases individuals were singled out to be used as examples for authoritative discipline. The first incident where there was student outcry demanding our voice be heard was in January of 2013. After the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, new security measures were implemented in schools across the country. Westford Academy wanted to guarantee the safety of their students so new safety measures were put into effect. All doors were locked during the school day, and the only way to enter the school during school hours was through the main entrance after being buzzed in by a member of the secretary staff. The second change was that students were no longer allowed to eat lunch outside because the staff could not guarantee the safety of students outside of the cafeteria. The last and most controversial safety measure was the new full time employment of an armed police officer to be present at all times during school hours. Having the officer in school raised the question of whether or not security measures were being made too extreme. Initially there was no demand that any guns be brought into the school, and many including myself were openly opposed to the idea that guns were the solution. However it is not the guns that caused any problems it was the new reign of authority that occurred after the police presence started in February of 2013. We have always heard the warnings that social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be monitored by anyone from our parents, future job employers, and even our schools. These warnings were taken very seriously by some, and ignored by others. Westford Academy falls under the category of schools that monitor its students social media activity similarly to schools introduced in the New York Times article “Warily, Schools Watch Students on the Internet” by Somini Sengupta. Sengupta introduced a case where a school had started to monitor its students because of a girl who committed suicide due in part to cyberbullying. “Two girls — ages 12 and 14 — who the authorities contend were her chief tormentors were arrested this month after one posted a Facebook comment about her death” (Sengupta). In this particular example the school had legitimate reasons to investigate, and through their investigation found evidence to punish the two they felt were responsible for the young girls suicide. In March of 2013, one month after an armed officer had been introduced to the school, an announcement was made discussing the harmful effect caused from bullying in schools across the country, and that anyone involved with bullying whether it be in school, or out was to be in no way protected by the school faculty. They spoke in particular about the severity cyberbullying can have because it causes the bully to not fully understand the harm their actions are causing in person which causes the bully to have a disconnect to the true harm their torment has on others. They briefly mentioned that any indications that bullying might be occurring over social media sites would be quickly brought forward and disciplinary action would be taken. Students felt confident that this was only a warning to anyone involved in cyberbullying so nobody seemed too worried that they would be targeted by faculty snooping. However, a few weeks later early one morning students were called down one by one into a room where the principal, a guidance counselor, and the newly appointed police officer were present. As students would walk in they would be shown clear evidence that they had been participating in underage drinking, or illegal drug use from pictures on their social media pages that had been posted. Depending on the severity of the offense, students were given detention, or in many cases suspended from anywhere from a day to a week. As this continued throughout the day, students and teachers alike soon became aware of the situation meaning that now not only do students have to deal with the consequences, but their teachers now knew what they were involved with outside of school. During the announcement about bullying nobody once mentioned that members of the school faculty would be taking the time to view every picture and post the students of our school had on display. This blatantly eliminates any perceived understanding that students have some form of privacy that cannot be breached. The school completely misinformed students by saying that they would be monitored for bullying only if indicated that bullying was taking place, and instead used the opportunity to punish students which in turn ruined all credible evidence that we as a student body could trust our schools faculty. Personally I was not affected by the iron fist of justice that occurred my senior year, but as a witness I can promise it influenced my future actions and decisions. In particular when students grouped together to speak up against this incident I was certainly not willing to challenge administration due to fear of the repercussions. Just as I had feared the students who banded together to accuse administration of abusing their powers were quickly taken care of. An email was sent out to the parents of every student who was openly involved with the organization which had been gaining popularity. The email singled out the students making it clear that the parents should closely monitor their children's decisions that occur outside of school because of their possible involvement with underage drinking and drug-use. Most of the students who were in the organization were not involved in the disciplinary actions that occurred. This was for the most part true because the students who had been punished weeks earlier were already too afraid to speak out against the administration they now feared, and would rather sit quietly and take their punishment. So under no circumstances should administration accuse every member of the organization simply because of the actions of some. The Westford Academy administration clearly denied students the right to express their opinions on the matter of whether or not social media should be monitored by school faculty. When someone has a traumatic experience, they never forget that experience, and they are able to learn from their past to grow into a stronger person. Fear has the same effect in the sense that if someone is in fear, they are going to learn how to never be in that same situation again. For students to fear those who are responsible for their education can only be met with stern opposition in the future. Students may only be students as of right now, but this kind of oppression can only be bottled up for so long. In the future these students who have faced opposition their entire lives will not continue to sit idly by. Not only will they fight back, but why on earth would students want to strive to reach their maximum academic capabilities if they do not respect their schools. If schools do not soon realize that it is in fact better to be loved rather than just feared they are in store for some serious reform. University of California Davis will continue to feel the effects of the Pepper-Spray aftermath for years. Schools should not just push their students into working for the best grades, but to be well accomplished individuals. American schools just do not realize that pressuring students in every way possible to perform to the unreasonably high academic standards of todays world is extremely harmful to students mental health. Especially in the form of robbing students of their first amendment rights is just the start. At the moment students can be intimidated into following the rules because the repercussions are worse than obeying the rules. What happens when students no longer fear repercussions because obeying the rules has become worse than any punishment? Schools need to understand that putting restraints on their students First Amendment rights is only going to cause students harm. Students opinions are important, and we should not try to cover them up from the world. New and modern thinking should always be encouraged in today’s world. This starts with allowing everyone their right to express their opinion with little to no resistance. The First Amendment does not mean that we have to agree with everything we hear, but if we are to allow the world to continue along the road to progression it starts with allowing everyone their right to express their opinions with little to no resistance regardless of if we believe in their point of view or not.

Work Cited
Gorman, Steve. "University of California Cop Who Pepper-sprayed Student Protesters Awarded $38,000." NBC News. N.p., 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Jayson, Sharon. "Teens Feeling Stressed, and Many Not Managing It Well." USA Today. Gannett, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Machiavelli, Niccolò, W. K. Marriott, Nelle Fuller, and Thomas Hobbes. The Prince. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955. Print.
Sengupta, Somini. "Warily, Schools Watch Students on the Internet." The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Tinker v. Des Moines. 393 U.S. 503. Supreme Court. 24 Feb. 1969. Print.

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