The Court of Consistency
When it comes to (fill in the blank), you've got to walk the talk. Management-speak for the old adage "practice what you preach," that exhortation might sound silly to some ears, but when it comes to following your own school district policies, it's good advice. As Camlin v. Beecher Community School District shows, when a school board issues a policy regarding student conduct, the policy governs not only the conduct of students, but also the enforcement of that policy by the board and administrators.
Opening the Schoolhouse Door
This month's column takes up two laws. First, there's the Equal Access Act, passed by Congress in 1984. Then there's a very different kind of law, one not enacted by legislatures or decreed by courts. It's a law of everyday life: the law of unintended consequences. As shown by a recent case from Kentucky, Boyd County High School Gay Straight Alliance v. Board of Education of Boyd County, Ky. (Boyd GSA), the second law is an inevitable companion of the first.
Stop the Presses?
The student newspaper plans to run a story about underage drinking. Fearing the article might be defamatory, the principal and superintendent briefly halt publication. Did they do the right thing? A federal case from Wooster, Ohio, illustrates a basic and unavoidable tension facing school boards and administrators when they deal with student expression. The case, Draudt v. Wooster City School District Board of Education, offers a valuable lesson about establishing and applying policies about student publications to resolve that tension in a prudent and constitutional way.
A Question of 'Patronage'
It's easy to see why a school district might require its employees to send their own children to public schools. Such patronage policies, as they're called, help market public education to parents who have the option of sending their children to private schools. But are patronage policies constitutional? That's the question the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tackled in its recent decision in Barrow v. Greenville Independent School District.
When a student's right to free speech—including speech about religious matters—clashes with a school district's duty to uphold the Establishment Clause, it sometimes takes the wisdom of Solomon to resolve the conflict. In Lassonde v. Pleasanton United School District, a case decided by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the role of Solomon was played by Bill Coupe, principal of Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif.
A Preventable Tragedy
This month's case, Niziol v. Pasco County District School Board, tells the story of a tragedy that unfolded over the course of a single day. A boy brought a loaded pistol to Ridgewood High School, near Tampa, Fla., and was killed in the school parking lot that afternoon when the gun accidentally discharged. The boy's parents sued the district, claiming school officials knew about the gun but failed to take action to avert a tragedy.
More 'News' About Religion
Life teaches us that acts have consequences, some of them unintended. So when a school district opens its facilities to relatively noncontroversial groups like the 4-H Club, it may have to accommodate more controversial groups as well. In the case of a New Jersey school district, that means helping a Christian group that seeks to evangelize elementary school children. The recent court decision mandating that action is found in Child Evangelism Fellowship of New Jersey v. Stafford Township School District.
Searching for the Right Answer
Public school teachers and administrators often feel like Bartholomew Cubbins of Dr. Seuss fame—they wear too many hats. One of the more unwelcome and challenging hats is that of investigator: deciding when and how to search a student for possible weapons or drugs. A decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case from Minnesota—Shade v. City of Farmington—illustrates the difficulties schools face in these situations.
Letter of the Law
Tragic episodes of school violence in recent years have taught school officials and employees to be alert to student behavior that might signal potential violence. A recent decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case from Arkansas—Doe v. Pulaski County Special School District—shows how difficult it can be to assess the risk of violence from teenagers' conduct and to respond in ways that both stem violence and comply with the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause.
Seeing Red Over Speech
Is the word redneck racially divisive? Does wearing a shirt with that word on it create ill will or hatred? Should such clothing be banned in school? According to a New Jersey circuit court case, the answers to these questions depend on the unique history of a school district. The facts in Sypniewski v. Warren Hills Regional Board of Education point to a district determined to eliminate ongoing racial tension. They also illustrate how difficult it is for school boards to write and enforce policies that regulate student speech.
A Question of Equality
Nearly 20 years have passed since Congress enacted the Equal Access Act (EAA), but complicated issues can still arise when schools try to apply the law to specific situations. A recent case involving a high school religious club, Prince v. Jacoby, raises basic questions about the EAA: What does equal mean? What level of access is required? And does the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause offer broader protection to student clubs than the EAA?
The Sad Case of the Columbine Tiles
Sadly, one of the aftershocks of the Littleton, Colo., massacre has been a free-speech dispute about the content of hand-painted ceramic tiles to be installed on the walls of the school's hallways. The dispute landed in court, and a recent decision in the case—Fleming v. Jefferson County School Dist. R-1—by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit shows how hard it can be to apply the general legal principles governing freedom of expression to actual situations that arise in schools.