High-school teacher faces discipline for ... reminding students of their Fifth Amendment rights

Thanks to the outcry online, replete with major sites picking up this story plus the obligatory petition, I’m guessing that this guy will not in fact be disciplined.

Alternate headline: “School administrators mull whether to bring boatloads of bad publicity upon themselves.”

John Dryden was collecting the surveys before class when he noticed the students’ names were printed on them. He looked to see what was being asked and noticed questions about alcohol and drug use.

Dryden told his students that they had a Constitutional right to not incriminate themselves by answering questions on the survey…

The results were to be reviewed by school officials, social workers, counselors and psychologists to “screen” students to figure out who needs help. “We can’t help them if we aren’t aware of their needs,” said Superintendent Jack Barshinger.

Dryden had warned all three of his classes, and when the survey was given at the end of the day, other teachers noticed students were refusing to take the survey. Dryden suspects one of these teachers told administrators he had advised students.

He claims the Fifth Amendment was on his mind because he’d been teaching the Bill of Rights recently. The school board’s reportedly holding a closed-door hearing tonight to discuss the matter. Two complicating factors here. One: Even Dryden doesn’t believe that the survey was designed as some kind of dragnet for busting teen potheads. The point, allegedly, was to “screen” for kids whose substance abuse might be a sign of suicidal tendencies. But because the students’ names were on the surveys, in theory the document could have been used to prosecute them. One obvious way around that would have been to assign numbers to each survey instead of names and then, after the results were tallied, broadcast a request for particular “numbers” whose results looked bad to meet with the school’s counselor. That’s less effective than knowing for sure which kids are at risk and forcing them to talk to someone, but it solves the incrimination problem and protects a bit more of their privacy. Alternatively, if you wanted to be more aggressive, you could have notified parents before the survey of what their child’s number was and then trusted them to find out later if the results for that number had set off any warning bells.

Two: Parents were told in advance that their children could opt out of taking the survey as long as they did so before April 17. Not until the next day was it finally administered. All Dryden did, really, was remind students belatedly of a reason to choose not to participate. It’s unclear to me after reading several stories about this whether the kids themselves knew before then that they could opt out, in which case they’d already effectively been informed of their right to remain silent, or whether only their parents had been told on the assumption that they’d decide on the child’s behalf whether he/she would complete the survey. Assuming it’s the latter, that’s probably what this kerfuffle is really about — a teacher essentially telling students that they didn’t have to obey their parents’ wishes about whether they should participate in a particular class assignment. Here too, if you’re worried about parents being out of the loop, there’s a way to loop them back in. Instead of making a kid fill out a survey against his will and potentially incriminating himself, let him refuse and then let his parents know of his refusal. How they handle the matter from there is up to them. Maybe they’ve got a little libertarian on their hands, in which case congrats. Maybe they’ve got a kid who’s troubled and this is their first inkling that there are problems afoot. If I were a kid, I wouldn’t be happy about the school notifying my parents. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t be happy if the school didn’t.

Exit question: Don’t most high-school students know that drugs are illegal? How many honest answers do you suppose the school would have gotten to the question “Do you take drugs?” when the student’s name is printed on the top of the page?