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How the Courts Undermined School Discipline


How the Courts Undermined School Discipline

May 4, 1999
EducationPre K-12

In the wake of the Littleton school shootings, we've heard a lot about educators' need to pay attention to the "warning signs" of potentially violent youngsters. In this case such signs were plain to see: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold produced videos and wrote essays for their classes depicting their murderous fantasies. But the legal culture produced by a pair of Supreme Court rulings makes it difficult for educators to do anything when confronted with such warning signs —or indeed even to enforce the ordinary discipline that kids need in order to be molded into citizens.

In Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), the justices sided with students who had been threatened with suspension for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Tinker protected young people who expressed opinions at odds with the government and reduced the possibility that educators could simply indoctrinate children with their own beliefs. "It can hardly be argued," wrote Justice Abe Fortas, "that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate. . . . Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons' under our Constitution."

Due Process

Six years later, in Goss v. Lopez, the court granted students the right to due process when threatened with a suspension of more than 10 days. Careful to insist that schools need only provide informal hearings, not elaborate judicial procedures, the justices believed that they could help guard against feared abuses of power without seriously disrupting principals’ authority.

On first sight, these decisions seem balanced and sensible. But their unintended consequence was to help create the world Gerald Grant described in his 1988 book, "The World We Created at Hamilton High." "Assemblies often degenerated into catcalls and semiobscene behavior while teachers watched silently," Mr. Grant writes. "Trash littered the hallway outside the cafeteria, but it was a rare teacher who suggested a student pick up a milk carton he or she had thrown on the floor."

Cheating was widespread, but "few adults seemed to care." No wonder. Teachers who accused kids of cheating were required to produce documentation and witnesses to counter the "other side of the story." One teacher who had failed a boy for plagiarizing a paper had to defend herself repeatedly before a supervisor after being harassed by daily phone calls from the student's parents and the lawyer they had hired on their son's behalf. Another teacher was asked why she didn't report several students who were making sexually degrading remarks about her in the hallway. "Well, it wouldn't have done any good," she shrugged. "I didn't have any witnesses." The phrase "You can't suspend me" became the taunt of many a disruptive student.

Surely the justices who decided Tinker and Goss did not anticipate this. Indeed, subsequent decisions have made clear that students don't enjoy the same legal rights as adults. In Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a principal who suspended a student for making an obscene speech, and in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), it allowed principals to censor highschool newspapers. And lower courts often decide in favor of school administrators who take a strong stand against provocative student speech and behavior.

But the mere threat of a lawsuit is often enough to have a chilling effect on teachers and administrators. Educators are understandably wary of students backed by litigious parents, not to mention numerous rights manuals with titles like "Up Against the Law," "A High School Student's Bill of Rights" and "Ask Sybil Liberty." These guidebooks enumerate for alreadydisaffected kids all the impermissible things teachers are going to try to make them do. You don't have to answer a school official if he questions you; a teacher can't make you do anything that violates your conscience; if you don't like the way the school makes you dress, you can go to court; you can demand to see your school records.

In his dissent in Tinker, Justice Hugo Black, one of the court's strongest defenders of the First Amendment, wrote that the decision "subjects all the public schools in the country to the whims and caprices of their loudestmouthed, but maybe not their brightest, students." Justice Black was right. A few years ago a Colorado high school principal took no action as one of his students strutted into school wearing Ku Klux Klan insignia. That is, until a black student punched the wouldbe Klansman. Only then, when the Klansman's "speech" could be construed as an incitement to violence, did the principal forbid it.

In another case, a highschool senior in New York state distributed articles urging students to urinate in hallways, scrawl graffiti on the walls and riot when the police arrived. In 1997 the school district suspended the boy, but only after the case had dragged on for two years, including an appeal to the state's highest court. Last year a 14yearold eighthgrader in Half Moon Bay, Calif., wrote a pair of English compositions, one about torching the school library and beating up the principal and another, charmingly entitled " Goin' Postal," about pumping seven bullets into the principal. When the boy was suspended for five days, his parents sued the school district The district and the parents reached a settlement under which the suspension was reduced to two days and the grounds were changed from "terroristic threats" to "habitual use of profanity in school assignments. "

Rights empowered students are no merely a discipline problem; they have also helped dumb down the curriculum. Mr. Grant found that as administrators and teachers became fearful of restless, backtalking adolescents, they resorted to keeping classes amiable and nonthreatening—in other words, unchallenging. All but a handful of charismatic teachers studiously avoided giving low grades, demanding homework or administering rigorous tests. This same dynamic is at work in the many schools today where students choose their courses from a number of faddish, "creative" options. After all, "Music as Expression" is much less likely to make a kid testy than "19thCentury America History."

Murderous Dreams

Thus instead of enriching children's minds and challenging their mediafed fantasies, adults stand by and condone the worst forms of adolescent actingout, sometimes with deadly results. Kip Kinkel, a 15yearold Springfield, Ore., boy, reported in science class on how to build a bomb and read in literature class from his journal about his dreams of murder. Last May the teenager allegedly shot and killed his parents, then went to school, where he allegedly murdered two classmates and injured two dozen more; he is now on trial. The adults' response to his classroom rantings? "He was a typical 15yearold," the Springfield superintendent of schools said. Other school officials said classroom talk of murder and violence is nothing unusual.

The Supreme Court undoubtedly thought that Tinker and Goss would free students from oppressive adult power. Yet today, 30 years later, resentful students must march through metal detectors, get sniffed for guns by trained dogs, watch police and security guards patrolling the hallways—and fear for their lives.