Chicago Needs a Student Bill of Rights

By adding a list of individual liberties to the student Code of Conduct, a student bill of rights would help to begin the school year by fostering a relationship of mutual respect between students and their schools.
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As the current school year ramps down, Chicago Public School officials are beginning to finalize changes to next year's Student Code of Conduct, the document provided to each student that explains the district-wide policy on discipline. One of the most needed changes to the Code is the addition of a student bill of rights. The Supreme Court has made it clear that students do not "shed their constitutional the schoolhouse gate." Yet despite this precedent, CPS students, teachers, administrators, and staff have been provided with no clear guidance as to the constitutional protections that students maintain while at school.

Other districts are different. In New York, the citywide handbook on student discipline includes a three-page list of student rights. These fall under four main categories: "The Right to a Free Public School Education," "The Right to Freedom of Expression and Person," "The Right to Due Process," and "Additional Rights of Students 18 and Over."

Enumerated rights under these categories include the rights to a safe and supportive learning environment; to participate in political, religious, and philosophical groups; to publish newspapers reflecting concerns and points of view about the school; to wear political buttons; to be free from indiscriminate searches; to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance; to know possible dispositions and outcomes for specific offenses; and the right, for students over 18, to control all of their own school records.

New York is not alone -- other school districts including the San Jose Unified School District and the Milwaukee Public School system also provide their students with a bill of rights.

Although there would be many advantages to enacting a student bill of rights in Chicago, three in particular stand out: a student bill of rights would prevent chilling of protected activity; would provide useful guidance to school officials, many of whom might legitimately not be aware of the law; and would help reframe the Code of Conduct in a more positive light.

A student bill of rights would prevent the chilling of perfectly legal conduct by explicitly clarifying to students that they maintain many constitutional protections while at school. For instance, a student who wished to start a gay-straight alliance at her high school might currently have cause to worry that school officials could disapprove, and could treat her differently as a result. A student bill of rights that explicitly allowed for the creation of political, religious, and philosophical groups would make it clear to that student that her proposed group was permitted, and would allow her recourse if the school tried to treat her differently because of her group affiliation.

A student bill of rights would also help provide officials with some much needed clarification. Principals, teachers, and staff can't be expected to consult a lawyer about their every move. Just as these officials currently check the Code of Conduct when considering the proper discipline for students, officials could look to look to the bill of rights in determining whether a student newspaper article is protected speech, or whether a search of a student locker or bag would be an impermissible violation of the right to privacy.

Finally, the addition of a bill of rights to the Code of Conduct would help to reframe the Code as a document devoted to protecting students, not merely to disciplining them. The Code of Conduct is an intimidating document. It focuses overwhelmingly on the harsh punishments that students will receive if they misbehave. Each student is given a copy at the start of every school year, and it can come across as an aggressive and adversarial first encounter. By adding a list of individual liberties to the Code, a student bill of rights would help to begin the school year by fostering a relationship of mutual respect between students and their schools.

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