School security has become a national hot topic in the wake of the largest school shooting incident in U.S. history that took place in Parkland, Florida on February 14. Students are some of the most vocal advocates for change concerning gun violence and school security; and rightly so, since they should expect to be able to learn in a safe environment. Civic engagement should be encouraged as long as it is carried out within guidelines from the school administration with the promise to ensure the safety of all students.
While all students have a First Amendment right to free speech, that right does not permit them to cause substantial disruption to the school environment or infringe upon the rights of other students. Additionally, threatening, lewd, or profane speech, and speech promoting illegal drug use have not been recognized in court as protected by the First Amendment for students within the school environment. When preserving the discipline and safety of students is at stake, the courts have acknowledged that it may be necessary to regulate speech outside of the school environment.
It is imperative that school leaders maintain open lines of communication with students and parents about how best to let student voices be heard. A common solution may be found for alternatives to walkouts or other protests that may disrupt the school environment and put students at risk. These may include planned student assemblies, allowing student clubs to become engaged in public policy issues, writing to elected leaders, and using the school newspaper as an outlet.
Staff members’ First Amendment rights are well defined by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court issued as a guideline the following three questions that can be used to determine if a staff member’s speech falls under the protection of the First Amendment:
These guidelines make it clear that staff members do not have First Amendment protections when expressing personal, political, or religious views, or when airing grievances with their colleagues or superiors while in the classroom. This includes concerns over school security and safety. Outside the school, they may express their views as long as they remain within the above parameters. School leaders should remind staff that while they should lead and encourage students to carry out respectful dialogue on issues they feel passionately about, staff must refrain from conveying their own personal political views.
To assist school leaders in planning and preparation for student activism, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has issued a document providing guidance to all school districts regarding student protests and demonstrations. Included in the document is a review of the Memorandum of Agreement between education and law enforcement officials as well as topics such as how to identify and secure an appropriate place for student gatherings and how to use social media to help discern what plans are being made in your school. Educators may also want to refer to the guide “Resources on Managing School Walkouts-Protests,” issued by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The Education and School Law Practice at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser is comprised of experienced attorneys who are dedicated to helping educators and school administrators handle the most complex legal matters. To learn more about the services we provide, call 484-318-7106 or contact us online.