Civil Liberties

School Board Reprimands Teacher for Telling Students About Their Right to Remain Silent


Yesterday John Dryden, the Illinois teacher who warned his students that they did not have to answer questions about alcohol and drug use on a survey distributed by their high school, got a warning of his own. The Kane County Chronicle reports that the Batavia School Board voted to issue "a written warning of improper conduct" to Dryden, who also was docked a day's pay. Batavia School Superintendent Jack Barshinger explained Dryden's offense this way:

In this case, district teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists and others worked together for over a year to select a data-gathering instrument that could be used to determine what social or emotional issues our high school students are experiencing, and whether individual students could benefit from new or increased supportive intervention by our staff. These purposes were shared with our parents and our teachers.

The issue before the board was whether one employee has the right to mischaracterize the efforts of our teachers, counselors, social workers and others; and tell our students, in effect, that the adults are not here to help, but that they are trying to get you to "incriminate" yourselves.

Barshinger seems to think it is inconceivable that there could be anything wrong with the survey, since people with good intentions worked on it for "over a year." Yet the survey forms that Dryden picked up from his mailbox 10 minutes before his first class on April 18 not only asked about illegal behavior; they had students' names on them, thereby destroying any assurance of confidentiality. Even if the people who selected the survey were not trying to get students to incriminate themselves, that was the inevitable result if students who had broken the law by drinking or using illegal drugs answered the questions candidly. What guarantee did they have that their answers would not be used against them, if only to pressure them into accepting the "supportive intervention" deemed appropriate by the school? As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, much damage can be caused by people from the government who are "here to help."

"These kids need to know that the U.S. Constitution is there for them," Batavia Alderman Alan Wolff told the school board yesterday, referring to the Fifth Amendment's ban on compelled self-incrimination, which Dryden mentioned as he distributed the survey forms. Another Batavia High School teacher, Scott Bayer, said Dryden was not alone in thinking it was important to let students know they were not obligated to answer the questions if doing so involved admitting crimes. "Every teacher I talked to addressed students in the same way," he said. Perhaps we can expect more written warnings of improper conduct.