Teacher In Trouble For Warning His Students About Their Rights Regarding Incriminatory School Survey

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An Illinois high school teacher faces disciplinary action for informing his students of their 5th Amendment rights before handing them a survey that contained questions about illegal drug use, drinking, and other activities, as well as their emotions. John Dryden saw that the students’ names were already printed on the surveys, and made a quick decision on his own about whether to inform them that they did not have to answer the surveys, because there was no time to discuss the issue with the administration staff.

Dryden felt that the surveys would make his students feel obligated to incriminate themselves, because it did not stipulate whether participation was optional or mandatory. The apparent purpose of the survey, according to the Daily Herald, was to help identify students who might need help. Support for such a survey was strong due to several suicides in recent years. They were supposed to be reviewed by social workers and counselors, as well as school officials, and were not intended to be diagnostic or used to ferret out illegal activity.

Parents could opt out of having their children take the survey, but they had to notify the school by April 17. Dryden didn’t think much of it until he started reading the questions it contained, at which point he started thinking about the Bill of Rights and the fact that the students needed to know that they didn’t have to participate if it meant incriminating themselves.

The 5th Amendment states, in full:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona expanded self-incrimination to include statements outside a courtroom, so the students did not need to be in court, involved in a criminal case, for the 5th Amendment to apply.

Because the students’ names were on the surveys, the school would know which answers belong to which students, meaning that such answers are self-incriminatory. Batavia Public Schools maintains a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol (among other things), and requires schools to discipline children in accordance with both state and federal law.

The discipline, however, ranges from counseling and detention to expulsion. When deciding how to discipline students for violating district policy, administrators have several factors they have to take into account, including the nature of the violation, the student’s own interests, and even whether their conduct will affect the learning abilities of other students.

Such a policy could create a 5th Amendment issue with the surveys, because students are being compelled to give up information about illegal activity, for which punishment does exist. Without knowing their rights, and without a stipulation saying whether the survey is optional, they aren’t voluntarily providing information, nor are they being caught actually engaging in illegal behavior.

The constitutional rights of students on school grounds seems to be a shaky issue with administrators, however, in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled that students retain their 1st Amendment rights even when on campus. There’s no reason that shouldn’t also apply to other constitutional rights. It would be a different story if the surveys were anonymous.

The school board will decide on Dryden’s punishment tomorrow. Meanwhile, there’s a petition up on ThePetitionSite.com that asks the board not to punish him at all, because he was only upholding his duties as an educator, and helping his students to better understand their rights as citizens of Batavia, the state of Illinois and the United States. To read and sign the petition, go here.