Teacher Punished for informing students of Fifth Amendment rights

Illinois teacher John Dryden got a formal reprimand and docked a day’s pay for informing students of their constitutional right to not incriminate themselves when filling out a district mandated survey. According to the article, the school district directed students to complete a survey about at-risk behavior – including past drug, tobacco and alcohol usage.

“The issue before the board was whether one employee had the right to mischaracterize the efforts of teachers, counselors, social workers and others and tell students in effect that the adults are not here to help but they are trying to get you to incriminate yourself,” Batavia School Superintendent Jack Barshinger stated.

I hate to break it to you, but the real issue is that you were asking students to fill out a 34-page survey that not only occupies precious learning time, but also asks students to divulge personal information that might be considered an admission of criminal activity, despite Barshinger’s claims that “it is not possible for a student to incriminate himself in a school setting that would make him eligible for any police action.”

Before I move on, let me pause to share a personal story that proves that it is perfectly possible for a student to self-incriminate in a school setting.

One winter day during my high school years, a few guys that sat near me on the bus thought it would be a good idea to bring snowballs on the bus. I was not one of them, but the driver thought that she saw me bring a snowball on the bus. Later in the bus ride, a student sitting directly in front of me decided to launch a snowball at the front of the bus. The driver thought it was me.

The next day, I the main office called me down and presented me a choice from the school’s police liaison officer: either give up the person who threw the snowball or face criminal prosecution for launching a projectile at or on a school bus. Of course, I gave up the guy who really threw the snowball.

This story illustrates the fact that not only is it possible for a student to self-incriminate in a school setting, it is possible for them to do so when they have in fact done nothing wrong. I was definitely eligible for police action despite my innocence, and if I had chosen not to give up the real perpetrator, I would most definitely have been fighting in court to prove I didn’t throw the snowball.

The same idea applies to the survey. Even though every survey I ever took didn’t have a name blank, they were always administered inside of the classroom (among a field of 28 other students) and did ask for other potentially identifying information such as birthdate, gender, and the grade you were currently in. It would be very easy to figure out who filled out which survey by those metrics alone. From there, it’s only a matter of taking aside students and questioning them about their criminal history or waiting for target students to run slightly afoul of the rules.

This teacher was completely within his rights to inform the students of their rights under the constitution. His intention, as he stated, was not to encourage students to skip the survey, but to make them aware they don’t have to answer any questions that could land them in legal hot water. Considering that students are increasingly being arrested for minor offenses that would normally be handled at the school level, it’s not a bad idea to help students avoid the kind of attention that could destroy their future.

Unless we as a nation take a stand, this is the future direction of education. A future in which students’ futures get destroyed before they even get a chance to establish one. A future in which teachers get punished for teaching things that were  considered fundamental to core curriculum. This is not a future I want to live in, and it is a future that no one else should be content to live in, either. If you as a student are faced with one of these ridiculous school surveys or the parent of said student, the first step would be to opt out of the survey before teachers get punished for doing their job.

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