Students fight for the right to protest

At some schools, free speech stops when the bell rings

When students protested a crackdown on tardiness at Oak Park and River Forest High School, school officials dispersed the crowd within minutes, called police to a second planned sit-in and threatened to take away seniors' rights to prom and graduation.

Similarly, in West Chicago, school officials quickly quashed a middle school rally over the cancellation of a school play. Seventh and eighth graders were threatened with disciplinary action and were ordered to remove their costumes — prom dresses and tuxedos — because they were disrupting "the learning environment."

"We're studying the Constitution this year, and we knew we had a constitutional right to protest," said eighth grader Korrin Gladwin, 14, of West Chicago. "We felt like (school officials) should be listening to us. They were treating us like we were just a bunch of robots to be ordered around."

Students may be learning about First Amendment rights to free speech and participation in democracy, but they often find that when they exercise those rights in school, their fledgling movements are crushed.

Recent student demonstrations, including a rally by hundreds of Chicago Public School students against budget cuts, illustrate the point. The 823 Whitney Young High School students who walked out of class and marched to CPS headquarters May 5 all faced Saturday detention.

School officials say the need for a safe, orderly environment where students can learn outweighs the right to protest.

"When it gets to the point when you have people disturbing the learning environment, being loud and banging on doors, if you're hanging over the banister, then we'll have to react in a way that our learning environment stays safe," Oak Park and River Forest High School Principal Nathaniel Rouse said.

But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an Arlington, Va.-based non-profit that helps student publications in battles with school principals and college administrators, sees it another way.

He said for students, school administrators are the government.

"When you teach young people who are very close to voting age that the government gets to decide what they can criticize, you shouldn't be surprised that we get damaged citizens," he said. "Too many (school officials) see student expression as a problem to be managed rather than an opportunity to teach."

Whitney Young High School Principal Joyce Kenner said students need to understand the repercussions for breaking rules.

"With every action there is a consequence," Kenner said. "Even though I believe their voices have to be heard, they have to be disciplined for their infractions."

Almost four decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of students who wore black armbands to protest the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, opening the way for student activism. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court stated that school officials clamping down needed to demonstrate the speech would invade the rights of others or cause "substantial disorder" of school activities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the debate now often revolves around what constitutes "substantial disorder."

Some argue that provoking discussion and disagreement doesn't rise to the level of substantial disorder, but others disagree.

"The courts have been clear: The rights of students in school are not the same as adults in society," said Brian Schwartz, associate director and an attorney at the Illinois Principals Association.

In the West Chicago case, students clad in costumes and their supporters decided to stand outside after the morning bell rang. They figured they'd wait for five warnings. But Korrin Gladwin told West Chicago Elementary School District 33 school board members last week that an assistant principal came out and told them they were facing suspension and that eighth graders were putting graduation at risk.

"It made us feel devalued," said Korrin, tearfully reading a prepared statement for the board. "I understand the safety concerns, but you don't understand how hurt we are."

District 33 Superintendent Ed Leman said if the protest had occurred outside of school time, the students would have been within their rights.

In Oak Park and River Forest High School's case, the school began piloting new technology two weeks ago that forced late students to scan ID cards in the hallway and wait for a slip of paper detailing their violations before being allowed into class.

Some seniors, annoyed with the crackdown on tardiness just a few weeks before graduation, decided to protest. Through texting and word of mouth, students decided to converge on a specific hallway, forcing people to be late and thus tie up the new equipment.

Some classmates began crowd surfing. The principal said students were hanging off the banisters in the stairwell and refusing to leave the hall.

Tom Benedict, 18, a senior, says although the event did get out of control, it started as an "organized protest," and as such should have been permitted.

"Most students are completely against this, and so we should be allowed to protest against something if we think it's not right," he said.

In West Chicago, the protest got squelched, but parents stepped in. Their vocal criticism and student tears at the board meeting swayed school officials. The superintendent has decided the play will, in fact, go on.

Freelance reporter Vicky Edwards contributed to this report.

1 comment:

The Gal Herself said...

I live a couple blocks away from OPRF and know kids who go there. Tardiness has been a big problem and apparently the crackdown was encouraged by parents who agreed they have been as helpless as the teachers to teach the lesson that "on-time is not optional." Parents seemed to be insisting that they are taxpayers who expect the school to teach their kids "life lessons." Despite the protest, students got on board and tardiness has been down these past few weeks.

Nobody was disciplined and everyone gets to go to prom and graduation.

When I heard about this, I didn't really think of it as a First Amendment issue. Instead I was amused that the students (more than 100 of them) didn't realize that they couldn't organize this through Twitter & Facebook without the cops seeing it.

I was also amused that the adults were shocked by the "stand in." This is a very progressive neighborhood and in the past, students have gotten class credit for attending local protests. Guess they didn't realize that the kids would take what they learned protesting local businesses and apply it at school.