**This blog post was written by a non-legal intern and should not serve as legal advice. If one is seeking legal advice they should consult a practicing attorney**
John Dryden, a Social Studies teacher at Batavia High School, has found himself on thin ice after teaching his students their Constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
Batavia High School asked teachers to circulate a survey to students with questions about drug and alcohol use. After noticing his students’ names were printed on a survey Dryden instructed his students that the Fifth Amendment gave them rights to refuse to fill it out. Word started to circulate around the school that Dryden informed students of their option not to fill out the survey. Students rallied around Dryden’s actions and the media reported on the event. For Dryden, the school board deemed his conduct “unprofessional” and he was issued a one day suspension without pay with a “notice to remedy” letter on his file.
Dryden argued that the student drug and alcohol survey put the students in danger of self-incrimination. He said it was “dumb luck” that he even noticed the names of the students printed on the surveys a mere ten minutes before class started. “I made a judgment call. There was no time to ask anyone,” as reported in the Daily Herald. When asked about what he would do if the situation arose again, Dryden said he would make the same decision.
The board claimed the survey was solely to test students’ social and emotional health and that it was meant to be a “screener” so that students who may pose a risk to themselves or others could get help from social workers or other available assistance. The board claimed that the survey would stay in a “temporary file” and would not be used to incriminate students.
According to news reports, the school provided a memo for the teachers, but the memo did not address whether the survey was mandatory and the teachers also received advance notice that such surveys would be given out, however, the memo never disclosed that students’ names would be on them. This was the first year that the school district chose to have surveys with names.
The school board also sent out an email to parents stating that students did not have to take the survey as long as they notified the district at a predetermined deadline. However, the email was not sent directly to students, so the only time they could refuse to take the survey was the time it was handed out.
Considering all the issues playing out in the current NSA government spying regarding aggregate data, the school board should have acted professionally rather than accusing Dryden, especially after all the debate about temporary files, stored files, permission to keep files on individuals. Instead of being taught about the opportunities for assistance the school has to offer, the school seemed to feel they could just target students and force them to use these programs. High school students have the responsibilities and access of adults and yet in instances like this are treated as children. It’s ironic that high school students read 1984 as a part of their school curriculum but are prevented from making privacy-related judgment calls for themselves.
Another issue is that the school assumed that students would tell the truth with their names plastered on the survey. I do not believe that any high school student would be dumb enough to willingly admit to involvement in any illicit activities.
In my opinion as a student, it seems that our rights are minimal at school. Only sending the email to parents notifying them of the survey not only cuts out all those parents who don’t use email, it incorrectly implies that guardians of citizens under the age of 18 can make decisions about Fifth Amendment rights.
Dryden took the extra step. He taught the students how to apply their rights to a situation first-hand, a lesson they would remember, instead of making them read a dry textbook to memorize facts that would be soon forgotten. Not many teachers are willing to take the risk to protect their students. What does it say that the ones that do get punished for their bravery.
I applaud Dryden for what he did because, honestly, it’s not easy to find an adult who takes high school students seriously. It’s surprising to find a teacher who believes that our privacy is also worth a fight, and the fact that Dryden is still fighting for our rights, even with the threats to his career, is honorable.
2013 High School Summer Intern