It was the “mischaracterization” heard around the nation: High school social studies teacher, John Dryden, was brought before the Batavia, Illinois school board after advising students about their Fifth Amendment rights. Before distributing a survey about “emotional learning,” which included thirty-four questions regarding drugs, alcohol, and emotions, Dryden suggested to his classes that they possessed a right not to incriminate themselves. The surveys were not anonymous. Any student whose answers raised “red flags” was sent to the school’s social workers and counselors.
Though it sounds similar to a quintessential American tale of employing those bases upon which we were founded, the fact that Dryden’s warning was seen as a threat instead of an informed citizen encouraging the development of other informed citizens is the greatest red flag of all. In fact, Dryden’s reminder pleads a question much larger and much more controversial than the general public realizes: Do students, those below the age of eighteen and legal adulthood, have constitutional rights — and if so, is it fair for school boards to dictate where those rights should be exercised?
Possibly the most disturbing piece of information throughout this case — besides Dryden being punished for rational action — is that a class of high school students did not realize they, too, hold the right to stay silent. In a country that proclaims loudly that we are “the land of the free,” it seems that when you are a minor in an academic setting, that freedom comes with certain stipulations. The young people of America should be informed and extremely conscious that they have an incredibly special birthright, The Constitution of the United States of America. However, if constitutional rights are subject to change within the confines of a school, how could students perceive them as anything but subjective, their power and accuracy dependent solely on circumstances in which they are invoked?
The school board claimed Dryden’s stance on the Fifth Amendment was unfounded and “mischaracterized” the school’s intentions. Despite the school claiming otherwise, the survey results were not kept confidential, and were sold to the company that provided the survey. Not only is it wrong to keep students uninformed about their rights, claiming a survey is confidential when it is clearly not can be classified as blatantly unjust.
Americans are known for their independence, so why should that independence be squandered in the most menial circumstances? Students who opted out of the survey were not refusing participation in an academic project that could hinder their education. They simply exercised a right every citizen of this country possesses; the right not to incriminate yourself. This is not the last time students will encounter circumstances in which they have more power than they realize. What is so terribly wrong about teaching them to think for themselves and act accordingly?
Dryden’s situation certainly raises more questions than answers, but the largest topic of discussion is an uncomfortable one: Does being a student make you less of a citizen? Too often, students, and subsequently, their parents, are indebted to the school systems in which they dwell. A shocking majority of the time, students are treated as employees, up against school boards and teachers who become bosses. They are not taught to investigate the difference between what is moral and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, but are instead given an answer that mandates a one-size-fits-all mentality, the belief that what they are being taught is the simplest form of the truth, rather than a mere interpretation.
School systems such as the one that condemned John Dryden do not see students as people, as citizens capable of any form of self-governing. Here is where the problem lies: To raise an intelligent, independent citizen, where do you begin? When a child lurches into adulthood on the cusp of their eighteenth birthday, are they suddenly armed with the capabilities to decide for themselves what is personally just or unjust? Will they abruptly understand that they, as Americans, have the power to choose, the power to protect themselves, and the power to say so?
The answer is no. Lessons in freedom begin with the youth, the students, the ones with the capacity to encourage America into a new age of personal consideration, while strengthening the Amendments which build this country’s identity. In classes like John Dryden’s, students become citizens.