Remember when you were young?

Sherri Jefferson is local attorney.

Parents, teachers, and school administrators, do you remember when you were a teenager? Reflecting on your adolescence, what would you have done differently?
Children being children. Remember those days!
In the coming weeks, the alarm will ring for the beginning of first period class. The noise will echo a new beginning for children entering elementary through high school. Children will embark upon meeting new friends, developing their social and cognitive skills and interacting with teachers and administration.It will also be an opportunity for school administrators to engage their students and their communities.
For some of our students, acts committed during their summer recess will be examined by school administrators for disciplinary measures even though such acts did not take place upon school grounds. Moreover, such acts had no bearing upon the educational setting or learning process.

Zero Tolerance
Zero tolerance is measured by restricting certain acts in hopes of limiting further acts of disobedience. In the 1980s, schools enacted the zero-tolerance approach to initially target possession of drugs like marijuana. Then, by the 1990s a ban on weapons became part of the zero-tolerance policy.
Today, zero tolerance means having no tolerance for children or their misjudgments or behaviors. Society thinks that children have it all figured out. However, the mixed messages that adults send children puts them on a downward spiral. From promoting videos and programming about guns and violence to authorizing guns on campus to politicians openly discussing marijuana and its legality to pharmaceutical companies openly advertising the benefits of prescription pills; our children look, listen, and learn!
School zero tolerance procedures mandate specific disciplinary measures, which is akin to mandatory-minimum prison terms, that prohibit judicial discretion. Educators and administrators lack discretion to discipline their student-body based upon pre-set rules by their school districts. However, where there exist specific rules of discipline for acts complained of, educators and administrators must adhere accordingly.

Legal Protections for Students
Throughout America, zero tolerance has caused most of us to forget the innocence of being children. Whether it’s freedom of speech, the right to privacy at school, or legal protections for children subject to the legal system – children in America have legal rights, too.

First Amendment
The Supreme Court of the United States held, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969), that the students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property. In order to justify the suppression of speech, the school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. Compare, in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) the Court held, that the First Amendment did not prohibit schools from prohibiting vulgar and lewd speech since such discourse was inconsistent with the “fundamental values of public school education.” These acts complained of all occurred on school property.

Fourth Amendment
In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) the Court held, that students have a right to privacy at school and cannot be subject to arbitrary searches or seizures of their person or belongings because they have Fourth Amendment protections.
Compare, in Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995) the Court ruled, that students who voluntarily participate in sports may be subject to drug-testing during their athletic participation and may expect some invasion of privacy. However, such expectation does not include off campus acts that were committed during their summer recess or holiday breaks. Student-athletes do not lose their constitutional or civil rights because they participate in school related activities. Disciplinary acts are for school related acts only.

Eighth Amendment
One of the most interesting cases, which impacts the lives of juveniles in America is the decision in Kent v. United States (1966). The Court held, that juveniles can be tried as adults for serious crimes, but in Roper v. Simmons (2005), in a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court ruled that standards of decency have evolved so that executing minors is “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
In Kent and Roper, the Court seeks to evaluate several factors to determine whether treating children as adults or determining punishment is proper. These factors include, but are not limited to, the age, seriousness of the crime, the child’s background and their mental state, or lack thereof.
The Criminalization of Childhood – An Adult at 17
An adult in Georgia is 18 years of age. At 18 an adult can vote, enter into contract, join the military, marry, receive medical services, drive and attend college without parental guidance or permission, and, by 21 they can legally smoke and purchase cigarettes and buy and drink alcohol. However, at the age of 17 they are adults for purposes of criminal prosecution.

Religious and Social Media Activities
As more and more schools monitor social media of their students. Questions exist whether students who post on social media may be subject to school disciplinary actions for off campus conduct. If the media post is subject to threats of students, bullying, harassment, and threats of harm, then whether off campus or not, the student can be subject to school disciplinary action, if a student is targeted and the action complained of can result in harm to the student at school.
However, where the off-campus incident has no bearing upon the educational environment, then there is no nexus (connection) between the act complained of and the school. Children are students of their local school districts, but students do not belong to the state. Alternatively, school districts do not have an ‘ownership’ interest in children. In fact, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives further guidance to rights and protections that families have regarding their children and school.
Compare, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000), the Court held, that although public schools may not sanction prayer or religious based activities, that students are not prohibited from engaging in voluntary prayer before, during or after school. However, the court held in West Side Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) that schools who offer clubs and programs for students, may not prohibit religious programs. This applies to school related events or programs, even extracurricular.
Now, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) the Court ruled that “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities.” The court notes with particularity, that the action complained of must be “reasonably related to legitimate concerns.” The “legitimate concerns” must be educational.
Parents entrust the school system with their children. Let us remember this school term, that children are being children. Let us learn to celebrate and tolerate children and provide a fair, safe and nurturing educational environment.

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