Soundoff: Balancing student rights

By Dwight Lundstrom

Principal, Oak Harbor High School

The stir around high school protesters is all about student rights. No doubt about that. But not necessarily in the way you might think.

The Supreme Court has ruled that one student right trumps all others when it comes to schools – the right to a safe and productive learning environment. A student’s right to free expression ends as soon as it becomes a disruption to learning or promotes illegal activity. Here’s how those rights clashed in Oak Harbor.

The protest and the issues surrounding it have many sides. At its core is a story about the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. Offshoots of that event include whether the school district has the right to discipline students for illegal activity occurring off campus and whether all students were treated equally.

The issue then took a left turn. The protests morphed into whether students have a right to stage a protest in school. Can protesters be suspended because they were disruptive and refused to go to class? Can students be sent home for wearing a T-shirt with a message of protest?

The answer to all of these questions begins with a drug deal. Four students were expelled for their interactions which resulted in marijuana being brought into the high school. Money exchanged hands. The students involved each signed statements admitting to their roles. Three more students were suspended for minor roles not involving the sale or purchase of the marijuana.

Each of the students involved were treated according to the district’s “exceptional misconduct” policy. This policy identifies five acts that can lead to suspension or expulsion: 1) insubordination or extreme disrespect; 2) possession of drugs; 3) sale of drugs; 4) intimidation or assault; and 5) committing a criminal act. The policy spells out the range of discipline for each incident and, in certain cases, expulsion is the only choice.

Some students argue that a violation must occur on school property in order for the school to enforce discipline. That is not true. For example, no one would expect school officials to let a fistfight take place simply because it’s across the street and off school property. As long as illegal activity or disruptive behavior touches the school in a significant way, such as drugs coming onto campus, school officials can get involved.

The student protest originated with issues of drugs and discipline before it took on a life of its own. For many, it’s now about the right of protest itself.

It started with a small group of students protesting the expulsion of one of the students involved in the drug deal. They were suspended for refusing to go to classes and behaving in a disruptive manner. Later that day, other students were asked to remove T-shirts that promoted the freedom of one of the students involved in the drug deal. If students refused to remove the T-shirts, they were sent home.

The school’s concern was prompted by credible reports from students that protesters were planning to disrupt a Veterans Day assembly scheduled for that afternoon. Given the disruptions earlier in the day, those reports had to be taken seriously.

The focus of school officials was to maintain a safe learning environment. In this case, students who worked hard to organize the Veterans Day assembly and students who wanted to attend that event had a right to hold the assembly unimpeded.

Today, students continue to wear clothing in subtle protest. That’s acceptable. On that first day, at that time, after the unacceptable disruptions earlier in the day, it was not.

Student rights are very important in any school. But you must remember those rights are a balance. Protesting on a street corner holding signs is a well-accepted practice. Acting belligerent in school and refusing to go to class is not. Passing around a petition or educating others about civil liberties is acceptable. Supporting illegal activities is not.

Did school officials miss a good learning opportunity for everyone involved? Maybe. Right-to-privacy laws complicated the matter, making it impossible to respond to most questions with direct answers. Yet, everyone learned from this. The learning opportunity is not over.

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