Reading: Kaminer, “The War on High Schools”

Wendy Kaminer [b. 1949]

This essay by Wendy Kaminer appeared in the December 1999 issue of The American Prospect, a liberal “magazine of public ideas, firmly committed—however unfashionably—to a belief in public improvement.” A lawyer, an editor, a much-published author, and a frequent NPR commentator, Kaminer uses a number of alarming examples to argue her point about recent “zero-tolerance” policies in American schools.

The War on High Schools

High school gave me my first lessons in bureaucracy: Rules were meant to be rigidly applied, not questioned; power was meant to be abused by petty functionaries. I don’t mean to malign the entire faculty of my school. It included some very good teachers who encouraged curiosity and provocation and never lost their sense of humor. Because of them, high school also offered opportunities for self-expression and contained rebellion.

I regularly got into trouble for insubordination, but I was never suspended, much less expelled. It was the mid-1960s, a time of protest, not zero tolerance, and there was no clear rule that prohibited challenging or even insulting teachers and administrators. So the authorities simply reported me to my parents. My beleaguered mother came to expect their phone calls and made frequent visits to school, trying to placate whomever I’d offended. “You have such a nice mother,” one of my teachers once said to me with wonder.

I doubt that my mother or any of my teachers could protect a kid from the wrath of school bureaucrats today. Fearful of violence and drugs, intolerant of dissent or simple nonconformity, public school officials are on the rampage. They’re suspending and expelling even grade school students for making what might be considered, at worst, inappropriate remarks, dressing oddly, or simply expressing political opinions. Efforts to strip students of rights are hardly new, but they have been greatly accelerated in recent months by hysteria about school violence and “terroristic threats.” America’s public schools are becoming increasingly Kafkaesque.

Across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union has received hundreds of complaints about cases like this: In Ohio a third-grader was suspended after writing a fortune cookie message, “You will die an honorable death,” which he submitted for a school project. (A terroristic threat? Or an innocent, well-intentioned remark by a child who watches martial-arts videos?) Eleven high school students in Ohio were suspended for contributing to a gothic-themed Web site. In Virginia a 10th-grader was suspended for dyeing his hair blue. In Missouri, high school junior Dustin Mitchell was suspended and required to perform 42 days of community service with the local police department for offering a flippant opinion on school violence in an Internet chat room (when asked if a tragedy like the Littleton shootings could happen in his school, Mitchell responded “yes”). In Louisiana a 12-year-old boy was suspended and held in juvenile detention for over two weeks after uttering a “threat” in a lunch line: “If you take all the potatoes, I’m gonna get you,” the accused terrorist said.

Those students who dare to use their speech rights to protest such draconian restrictions on speech are liable to be punished severely. In Texas, 17-year-old high school student Jennifer Boccia was suspended for wearing a black armband to school to protest restraints on free speech that followed the shootings in Littleton. Boccia was also reprimanded by her school principal, Ira Sparks, for daring to tell her story to the media; she was told that if she wanted to clear her record, she should refrain from speaking to the media before discussing her remarks with school officials.

Boccia made a federal case of it and won a settlement from her school vindicating her First Amendment rights. Sometimes schools back down when threatened with lawsuits, and many students willing to challenge their suspensions should ultimately prevail in court if their judges recognize the Bill of Rights. But repression is becoming respectable, and some federal judges are as wary of free speech as school administrators are. Student speech rights have, after all, been steadily eroding for the past two decades. The landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District upholding the right to wear a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War has not been overruled, but its assertion that students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door has not been honored either.

Students’ press rights have been severely restricted, as has their right to express themselves sartorially. Unhampered by logic, judges have ruled that clothing choices are not expressive (and so are not protected by the First Amendment), but they’ve given schools the power to prohibit clothing when it conveys what administrators consider inappropriate messages. In a recent Utah case, a federal district court judge upheld the suspension of a high school student who wore a pro-vegan T-shirt to school and started a petition protesting a ban on vegan symbols. School officials associated veganism with the militant branch of the animal rights movement and labeled the T-shirt a gang symbol. (In Alabama and Mississippi, the Star of David has been banned as a gang symbol.) “Schools need to run, and administrators need to make rules,” the judge in the vegan T-shirt case explained idiotically. “That’s the only reason they exist.”

Apparently. Education is becoming militarized. Teachers and administrators give orders, and students are expected to follow them. The Louisiana legislature recently passed a law treating elementary school children like little army recruits. They can no longer simply say “yes” or “no” in answer to a question in school. Under law, they are now required to address all school employees as “sir” or “ma’am,” as in “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.”

The desire to regiment students is sometimes quite overt. Character First, a character education program for elementary school students, requires children to memorize this poem about attentiveness: “I will look at someone speaking / And I’ll listen all I can / I will sit or stand up straight / like a soldier on command.”

Soldiers don’t generally enjoy much autonomy, even off duty, and neither do students these days. School administrators take an expansive, totalitarian view of their own jurisdiction. They’re punishing students for after-school and out-of-school activities or remarks. Numerous suspensions of students for the things they say in Internet chat rooms and other instances of cyberspeech exemplify this disturbing trend, but administrators have also targeted more traditional forms of childhood play. In a recent Massachusetts case, two 12-year-old boys were suspended for playing war with toy guns in the woods adjacent to their school after school hours. (Never mind that at the time the U.S. military was bombing Yugoslavia.)

While students are being suspended for playing with toy guns, police officers armed with real guns are being deployed in some schools in order to provide security—or the appearance of it. In Houston, officers wearing bulletproof vests, trained in assault tactics, and equipped with dogs as well as guns are patrolling middle schools, high schools, and school neighborhoods. Students in the Houston schools will soon be subject to random, bimonthly searches for drugs and weapons. . . . In Georgia, an entire class of fifth-graders was strip-searched by school officials and police officers looking for a missing $26.

Why do we treat students like criminal suspects? We can’t simply blame recent incidents of gun violence; minors were the victims of repressive laws and policies long before the Littleton shootings. Adults fear the sexuality of teens, or envy their youth, or worry about their judgment, or, like Dr. Frankenstein, they want to mold their little monsters instead of allowing them their freedom to develop. In any case, obsessive concern about unruly children and especially adolescents is a long-standing American tradition . . . .

Juvenile crime is relatively low today. According to the Department of Justice, violent juvenile crime has declined since the early 1990s and is at its lowest point since 1986. Violence in high schools has also declined substantially; the chances of a child being shot in school are “literally one in a million,” criminologist James Alan Fox recently remarked in the New York Times. Some may find a one-in-a- million chance of being murdered unacceptable, and random shootings naturally arouse nearly everyone’s anxiety. Still, according to a Times survey of teenagers conducted in October, both violence and fear of violence appear to have declined among America’s teens.

Fear of illicit drugs, however, remains high among adults, especially those who rule the schools. The war on drugs has greatly diminished students’ rights (along with the rights of adults). Schools treat students like criminal suspects partly because they view nearly every student as a suspected or potential drug user. Urine testing is becoming common in schools, and courts are sometimes loathe to strike it down. In 1995 the Supreme Court upheld random drug testing for student athletes. In 1999 a federal appeals court in St. Louis held that students could be tested for drugs before participating in any extracurricular activity.

What’s the harm of drug testing? “This policy gives all kinds of people access to my private information when there isn’t even any reason to think I’m doing drugs,” one student challenging his school’s drug-testing policy states. “It’s like something out of 1984.”

It’s heartening to find brave students willing to challenge their schools’ repressive policies. Some teenagers instinctively understand speech and privacy rights or the right to be free of unreasonable searches, despite the efforts of administrators. Others are instinctively drawn to authoritarianism. How will most students learn about freedom when schools treat censorship, surveillance, and conformity as social goods? How will they learn about democracy and the exercise of individual conscience when schools equate virtue with obedience? How did following orders become the American way?


Wendy Kaminer. “The War on High Schools.” The American Prospect, November 2001 The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.