Chapter 14: The Rights of Students

Activity 1: "YOUTH SPEAK"

See if you can organize a screening in your school of "Youth Speak," a half-hour film in the ACLU Freedom Files series, in which young Americans tell stories of how they stood up for civil liberties. 

The students who are featured include: 

• Aaron Peckham, a student who created a slang Web site called UrbanDictionary, and then found he could be jailed or fined under new legislation.  Aaron became part of a lawsuit to protect speech on the Internet. 

• Anthony Latour, an eighth-grader who wrote rap lyrics that were seen as offensive.  He had his house searched by a SWAT team, and was arrested and expelled from school.  He returned to school after making the case that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

• Alondra Jones, who was frustrated with the poor run-down conditions in her high school.  She joined forces with student across California and helped win a multimillion dollar settlement aimed at improving education in the state. 

Click here to view the film.


Freedom of expression or dangerous thoughts?

In April 2007, shortly after the killings at Virginia Tech, Allen Lee, a honors student at Cary-Grove High School in Illinois, was arrested near his home for an essay he had written as a "Free Writing" homework assignment.  He was charged with a misdemeanor, had his personal computer seized and his contract to join the Marines retracted.  His essay contained graphic language and profanity, and depicted violent acts. The violence was not directed at a particular person or persons.  Students had been asked to write whatever came into their minds and not to censor it or cross anything out. The essay was not published or posted for public viewing.  

Was the high school principal justified in having this student arrested?

If your answer is No, how should the principal have responded?

Freedom of expression or prior review?

Amy Sorrell, a high school English teacher at Woodlan Junior/Senior high school in Indiana, taught journalism and served as adviser to the student newspaper, The Tomahawk.  On January 19, 2007, The Tomahawk included an editorial advocating tolerance towards gay people.  In March 2007 she was place on paid leave by the school principal and faced being fired. The principal accused her of ignoring a warning she had received previously about getting his approval before each issue of the newspaper goes to press.  In a settlement she reached with the school, she agreed to be transferred to another school in the district.  She also said she was proud of the student who wrote the editorial and the newspaper staff.

Was the high school principal justified in disciplining this teacher?

If your answer is No, how should the principal have responded?

Does your school have a student newspaper?  Does the principal review the articles before they are published?

Should this student have been sent home?

A high school student at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tennessee was sent home from school "for his own safety" after he tried to participate in a Day of Silence, an event held on April 18, 2007 across the nation to highlight the harassment and discrimination faced by gay, lesbian and bisexual students in public schools.  

Do you think this was an appropriate response?  Did your school participate in the Day of Silence?  If so, how?    

Is this appropriate student discipline?

When, on March 28, 2007, a 6-year-old threw a tantrum in the Avon Elementary School in Avon Park, Florida which disrupted classroom activities, school officials called the police.  She was arrested, and hauled out of the school in handcuffs.  She was then taken to central booking in the county jail.

Does this seem an appropriate response?  When do you think it is appropriate to call police to a school?

Efficient management or Big Brother?

The Taunton school district in Massachusetts planned in April 2007 to scan two fingerprints from each student, digitalize them, and use them to speed up payments on the school lunch line.   But some parents and organizations argued that taking fingerprints should only be done in criminal investigations.  They also said that these digital scans violated students' privacy rights and could lead to identity theft.  After a public outcry, the school district decided not to proceed.

Do you think that this proposal was a good use of technology?  Would you mind if your school had a digital record of your fingerprints? 

Are curfews constitutional?

High school students in Lake Oswego, Oregon are hoping to overturn their city's curfew.  The curfew bans children younger than 14 years old from the city streets between 9:15 PM and 6 AM.  Young people between the ages of 14-16 must be off the streets after 10:15 PM or midnight on Friday and Saturday.  At first the students tried to get the curfew overturned by testifying against it before the City Council.  When that didn't work they went to the ACLU, which brought a lawsuit in April 2007 challenging its constitutionality. 

What constitutional rights do you think are at issue in this lawsuit?  Do you think curfews can ever be constitutional?  When?

When should schools be able to conduct searches?

Searches of lockers have become common in schools. School handbooks often state that lockers are the property of the school and students do not have the expectation of privacy when using them.  The US Supreme Court has ruled that schools can search student belongings like purses and backpacks when there is "reasonable suspicion" to do so.  But what about the 21st century gear that students bring to school? 

Do you think the following can be subjected to a school search?  If so, when?

• phone records on cell phones

• pictures on cell phones

• schedules and address books on cell phones

• text messages on cell phones

• digital cameras

• music players

• palm pilot

• laptop computers

• graphing calculators

• websites

Do an Internet search to see what you can find out about school searches involving these kinds of items

Should students be punished for what they do in cyberspace?

Around the country there are cases of students getting in trouble at school for material they have posted on their home websites and MySpace and Facebook accounts. 

Do you think this should ever happen?  If so, when?

Should students be punished for:

• Appearing in a photo where a bottle of beer/alcohol is in the background. 

• Holding a bottle of beer in a photograph.

• Drinking beer or alcohol in a photograph.

• Wearing a T-shirt that says "Legalize Marijuana" in a photograph.

• Smoking a cigarette or hookah in a photograph.

• Smoking marijuana in a photograph.

• Kissing someone in a photograph.

• Appearing in a photograph nude or partially nude.

• Writing about drinking, smoking, or other illegal activity on someone's Facebook wall.

• Writing obscene or offensive comments such as racial slurs or swears on someone's wall.

How much does your school censor Internet access?

Find out!  Try searching the following on your school computer:

China's Opium Wars, medicinal marijuana, reproductive rights, sex education, abstinence, www.urban,,




Some Massachusetts elementary school students who spoke Spanish as a first language felt they were being unfairly treated by being taught in a separate classroom and made to communicate only in English.  They decided to sead a letter to the Massachusetts Governor (see below)

What changes would you like to see in your school?  What methods could you use to try to bring them about?

March 20, 2008

Dear Governor Deval Patrick,

In our fifth grade class we think that you are doing a great job. But, there are two things that are bugging us. We are studying African American history and we know that we are segregated just like Ruby Bridges. Also, we want to learn Spanish in our public schools. Here is what is going on in our schools.

There are rules that keep us from reading and writing our own language. Sometimes we forget to speak Spanish to our parents. When new students come, it is hard to translate. And, it is hard for them to learn. We need our language in our class.

In the story of Ruby Bridges, the black and white people were segregated. The black people didn’t get the same education as the white people. We have the same problem. At our class, we want to solve this problem.

In Tribal Rhythms we are learning how to make community. We have a little poem that we say, “There was a person who made a circle to keep me out, so I made a circle to include us both.” Can you please help us to be with the other fifth grade classes and learn our languages together? Imagine if we could teach the other fifth graders Spanish!

The Scholars of Room 204
Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale



Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts