On October 30, the American Civil Liberties Union in Nashville is hosting a Students Rights Conference for “high school students to talk and learn about student rights in schools and in the community.” The topics listed on their flyer include:
Freedom of Expression: Students’ rights related to speech, press, dress, the internet and texting.
Street Law: Students’ rights and responsibilities related to the police, the courts, and racial profiling.
Plus: experts on LGBT issues, privacy rights and religious freedom in schools.
Building this level of student awareness and capacity around their rights is core to the creation of more student-centered schools. And yet, I wonder how much schools themselves, specifically at the building level, know about student rights. For that matter, how much do parents and communities know about student rights? As someone who works for a youth organization, how much do I know about student rights? (Not much for my part I’m afraid.)
Perhaps even more critically, what are their rights beyond those explicitly defined by the Constitution? What about those rights more akin to concepts like dignity, respect, and the like? These are often the most nebulous of concepts and yet most of us agree they are most critical to healthy development and safe school environments.
Assuming we all agree that dignity and respect have their place in schools, how do we articulate what they mean as rights and how in the world do we enforce them as a practice? For that matter, how are student rights like dignity systematically communicated, trained, and made a part of the school operations and climate? Whose job is it to enforce and advocate and be a watchdog for the human and constitutional rights of students every day and in every school? What, if any, are the real consequences if student rights (particularly those that are not explicitly Constitutional) are violated?
I sincerely don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle to be an effective advocate for and with young people due to this lack of clarity.
For instance, have my rights been violated if:
- I am a student who successfully matriculates to the fourth grade and I am reading at a kindergarten level?
- I am a middle or high school student who aspires to go to college and am refused the guidance/support to do so, or perhaps am told by my teacher I will be pregnant or in prison before I can get to college?
- I am a student with intellectual disabilities and I have no access to school-based athletics, music, theater or other extracurricular activities offered to those without intellectual disabilities?
- I am a victim of tear gas, choking and burning, in my school hallway because my School Resource Officer dropped a canister to break up a small fight between two of my classmates?
- I am gay and my teacher openly allows the use of “gay” as a derogatory term and a put-down in the classroom, occasionally even using it himself?
- I am a ninth grader who signed up for my high school classes with my mother during middle school and I am given none of those classes and actually spend the first months of high school without a complete schedule, without books, and falling further and further behind and closer and closer to “the cracks”?
- I am allowed to play cards in the back of my high school Math class for an entire semester because it is deemed I have learned enough to pass state tests?
I simply do not know where the line between bad practice and a violation of rights resides. I believe we need to clarify that line.
With no clear student rights, there can be no accountability. With no accountability, there is no way to build the collective and there is no target for positive change. If we are as a nation looking toward a new day and age in public education, where is this discussion (with students) of student rights in our national campaign to reform our schools?
Importantly, with defined rights also comes responsibility. So, on the flip side, where is the discussion (again with students) of student responsibilities in schools? What are the explicit, active roles students play in creating a positive school environment (and “staying out of trouble” and “passing” classes are not sufficient)? Are there any? Do they know it? Have they been trained and prepared with the skills and processes to carry them out effectively?
If we ever want to stop bullying, for example, it will only be through the power of students to take on this issue with a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities. As long as student safety, for instance, is someone else’s (an adult’s) responsibility, students will not see or understand their role as a solution to a problem that they very clearly know exists. There simply will never be enough adult leaders with enough ubiquity to match the reach and impact of peer-to-peer relationships among students. To secure the true dignity and respect of all students in schools (and all adults for that matter), we need to articulate what this means and share the responsibility for living it every day.
Students need to understand their rights and responsibilities. The entire education community needs to understand student rights and responsibilities. Together, we need to hold each other accountable for these rights and responsibilities.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If no one is watching and no one is listening to the rights of students, do they exist?