Do kids have rights?

July 12, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Do kids have rights?

"Absolutely, says Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan.

But are those rights absolute? Are they unrestricted? Do they stand without relation to anything else?

The answer is no.

Rights come with responsibilities, Morgan says.

"Every right is contextual," says David Rocah, staff attorney, American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Rights are balanced with responsibilities and obligations, says Hagerstown attorney J. Gregory Hannigan.

Just what is a right?

Webster's defines right as "that which a person has a just claim to; power, privilege, etc., that belongs to a person by law, nature, or tradition."


Are kids' rights different?

In many ways, they are. For example, kids - juveniles younger than 18 - don't have a right to trial by jury, says Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley.

Juvenile justice is focused on rehabilitation, he says. The provision is intended to be protective, keeping fewer people involved, he says.

What about rights in relation to school?

Maryland law provides that all persons between the ages of 5 and 21 have the "right" to attend a public school. But with that "right" comes the "responsibility" that every child between 5 and 16 "shall attend public school regularly during the entire period of each school year," according to the recently revised "Students' Responsibilities and Rights" document of the Board of Education of Washington County.

"They don't have a right not to go to school," Beachley says.


"It's in the best interest of the state to have an educated populace," says Jim Russell, supervisor, Student Services, Washington County Public Schools.

Education is so important that the state mandates criminal charges - that is, parents can go to jail - for parents who don't make sure that their children attend school or some acceptable alternative such as home school, or evening or alternative high school, Russell says. "You don't have the right to not be educated."

Kids do not have absolute rights in school. The fourth and the first clauses in the Bill of Rights get abbreviated a little. Lockers, for example, can be searched (the fourth amendment to the Constitution says people have a right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures). What students write for school newspapers are subject to administrative review and abridgement. Restrictions can be placed on the way students dress and behave.

"Our responsibility is to make sure the kids are safe," says Martha Roulette, director of student services for Washington County Public Schools. The schools have the responsibility, in effect, to act as parents, she says.

'Persons' under the Constitution?

In the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Tinker v. DesMoines, Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority: "In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution."

We've come a long way since the '60s.

The June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold drug testing of students involved in a range of extracurricular activities in school may be viewed by some as contrary to the 1969 decision. The new decision expands random drug testing to school activities beyond athletics. That is now the law.

"The Supreme Court gets to have the last word," Rocah says.

There is no drug testing in Washington County Public Schools. But earlier this year, Washington County Public Schools Alcohol and Drug Task Force - a committee of parents, students, educators, community members, health professionals, and drug and law enforcement officials - recommended voluntary random drug testing of students in extracurricular activities. Drug testing is not first on the list of recommendations, but the task force's advice is being considered.

Lauren Low, a Boonsboro High School junior who will be a nonvoting member of the Washington County Board of Education this school term, says she would be in favor of such testing. She thinks it could help prevent students from using drugs. "It would send a clear message," she says.

A balance of right and rights

Katie Spoonire, a 2002 graduate of Williamsport High School who served as president of the Washington County Association of Student Councils last year, disagrees with the decision. She thinks random drug testing is an infringement of students' rights.

While the Supreme Court thinks that such testing is a good idea, others don't. Rocah says there are lots of good ideas, but that doesn't mean government should carry them out.

He illustrates his point by saying that he may think it's a good idea to take his child to synagogue every Saturday, and he has the right to do that. But it would be "utterly inappropriate" for the government to tell him he has to do it.

The balance between what the individual and society wants is a delicate one. Kids have the "right" to be educated, and although there may be some who consider being required to go to school as an infringement of their rights, that's the way it is.

Morgan, an educator for more than 30 years, says she has noticed that it's no coincidence that education is strictly controlled by authoritarian governments and dictatorships. She cites Taliban rule in Afghanistan as an example.

"It's a real tribute to public schools that we're able to maintain an awareness of everyone's rights," she says.

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