Never waste a teachable moment. Especially if you are running a public school system.
Officials of Utah’s Alpine School District, like many other schools around the country, are weighing the balance between security and privacy as they ponder changes to their policy governing searches of students’ lockers and persons. Part of the discussion has been around the question of what level of suspicion, if any, must be reached before administrators or security personnel can search a student’s locker — which is, technically, the school’s property, not the student’s.
Public officials are in a delicate position in such matters, and not only in schools. Rummage through any person’s property or effects and come up with nothing, and you are an Orwellian oppressor. Fail to follow through on the flimsiest of tips and later watch people fall before gunfire, and you are a lazy functionary.
However the officials of Alpine, and all other schools, resolve their debate, they would be well advised to include their students in both the formulation and the exercise of the policy. Not just out of courtesy or a desire to make things run smoothly, but in the knowledge that their entire school, especially at the high school level, is a laboratory for the inculcation of the values of a citizen in a free, law-abiding society.
The last thing we want is a generation of high school graduates who have been taught to sit still for the abrogation of their constitutional rights. Even in places and situations where those rights may not be as firm as some might argue.
A process of establishing probable cause for the search of a locker, a purse, a backpack or a car, requiring that probable cause to be documented and signed off on by a neutral official, and informing all students ahead of time, in as many ways and forums as possible, just what their expectations of privacy are on campus, would add up to a civics lesson that can have a much more lasting impression on the next wave of citizens than any lecture or chapter.
High school is a place for students to practice at being chemists, writers, journalists, artists, mechanics, singers, actors, dancers, musicians and athletes, in ways that mimic the adult world as closely as possible. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a place for students to not just read about, but to practice, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Teaching student journalists to knuckle under to censorship is like teaching basketball players to shave points, like teaching artists to paint inside the lines. In other words, not just useless, but harmful.
The same is true of the education of citizens.