Illinois School District Forces Students to Self-Incriminate

by | May 31, 2013

What could be less controversial than a US public high school social studies teacher informing his students that they have the right to refuse to answer whether they have done something illegal? In fact, this concept—the right against self-incrimination—is part of the typical high school curriculum. Nonetheless, in Illinois this week the Batavia Public School District 101 school board reprimanded and disciplined Mr. John Dryden, a public high school social studies teacher, for informing some of his students of just this concept.

Dryden, who received a student survey just before his first class of the day, realized his students’ names were on their respective survey forms, meaning the survey was not anonymous. He also noticed the survey asked about matters including the students’ drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, as well as their emotions. Dryden then informed some of his students they could apply to this survey the right against self-incrimination. The school district found this otherwise routine lesson unacceptable when the lesson stood in the way of school officials reviewing completed surveys.

While the school district argues, as have other school districts, that such surveys will aid the school district in helping students at risk for suicide, students who admit to drug or alcohol use in such surveys have a legitimate concern that this information could be used against them. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent Crime in the United States report, there were over 155,000 arrests of people under 18 years old for alleged legal violations in the categories “Drug Abuse Violations” and “Liquor Laws” in 2011. Further, students have reason for concern when they consider that some schools invite drug-sniffing dogs to campuses for locker-to-locker and car-to-car drug searches and participate in programs awarding cash for tips leading to school administrative action, arrest, or charging of students for drug or alcohol legal violations.

Many parents and students are also concerned about the widespread use of mental health screening surveys of students that include detailed questions about drug use, sexual activity, and other personal matters and are administered without parents’ knowledge and consent. Concerns about mental health screening include the risk of misdiagnosis and the pressure to use pharmaceuticals that may cause worse problems than any mental issues the drugs are supposed to address.

Parents and students also may be concerned that records of drug use or emotional issues could be used against a student who may later desire to own a gun or work in certain kinds of employment

There are many reasons parents and students would refuse to participate in surveys such as the one administered by the Batavia school district. But one reason should be more than sufficient: The information sought in these surveys is private and none of the school districts’ business.