NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Student "Rights" vs. School Discipline

May 4, 1999

Following several decisions which seemed to confer certain rights on public school students, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has made it clear that students don't enjoy the same legal rights as adults. And nowadays, lower courts often decide in favor of school administrators who take a strong stand against provocative student speech and behavior.

Nevertheless, over the years the very threat of a lawsuit has been enough to have a chilling effect on teachers and administrators who are wary of students backed by litigious parents.

  • A few years ago a Colorado high school principal took no action when a student strutted into school wearing Ku Klux Klan insignia -- until a black student punched the would- be Klansman, at which point the principal did forbid it.
  • In New York state, it took two years to resolve a case involving a high school senior who distributed articles urging students to urinate in hallways, scrawl graffiti on the walls and riot when the police arrived -- finally ending only after the courts upheld the boy's suspension.
  • When an eighth-grader in a California school was suspended for five days last year for writing English compositions about torching the school library and pumping seven bullets into the principal, the parents sued the school district -- with the result that a settlement was reached under which the suspension was reduced to two days and the charges were changed from "terroristic threats" to "habitual use of profanity in school assignments."
  • A 15-year-old Oregon boy, who reported in science class on how to build a bomb and read in literature class about his dreams of murder -- acts then described as those of a "typical 15-year-old" -- finally allegedly shot and killed his parents and two classmates, and injured two dozen more.

Observers say the threat of litigation leaves adults standing by and condoning the worst forms of adolescent acting-out.

Source: Kay S. Hymowitz (City Journal), "How the Courts Undermined School Discipline," Wall Street Journal, May 4, 1999.


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