A recent strip-search of fifth-graders at Conley Elementary School in Chandler concerns Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But what concerns Eisenberg more, she has said, is the general apathy she sees among students each time schools encroach further on students’ civil rights — which she said have been slipping away at schools for decades in the name of security and order.
"I am terrified at the prospect of a generation of children growing up who accept infringements on civil rights in the name of security," she said.
Besides the strip-search in Chandler, recent incidents in the East Valley that raised civil rights concerns include:
• Students at Cheyenne Traditional School in Scottsdale having to remove patriotic pins from their clothing on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because the principal said the jewelry violated the school’s dress code.
• Tempe Union High School District installing 40 surveillance cameras at each campus in 2002. Now, the network tracks students from the moment they step onto campus until they reach the classroom or restroom door.
• Students at many East Valley schools are now being required to display their student ID badges on lanyards around their necks at all times.
• At Mesquite High S chool in Gilbert, the yearbook adviser losing her position in 2002 after articles written by her students generated complaints from parents.
• A cosmetology teacher at the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa reprimanding Hispanic students in October for speaking Spanish among themselves in the classroom. Three months later at Ingleside Middle School in Phoenix, about a mile from the Scottsdale border, the district fired a teacher following allegations that she slapped students and sent them to a discipline room for speaking Spanish.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said the totalitarian approach taken by some public schools leaves many students unprepared to function in a democratic society after graduation.
"There is a certain sense of ‘why bother’ among students today," Goodman said. "They have been taught from their earliest years that their voice does not matter. It’s a terrible failing on the part of our schools."
Students at Horizon High School in Phoenix, about 2 miles west of Scottsdale,
said they know what it’s like to have administrators ignore their opinions.
Horizon senior Jayme Kurland, 17, president of the school’s Teenage Democrats club, said teachers often encourage students to be socially and politically active — but then nobody listens when they speak up.
"A lot of students have tried to become active," Kurland said. "And when their voices aren’t heard, many students might get the wrong impression that their voices will never be heard."
Kurland said several students worked together last year to circulate a petition about a proposed change in the school lunch schedule that would require many seniors to stay at school longer each day.
Horizon senior Jessica Johnson, 18, a member of the Teenage Republicans, said administrators simply ignored the petition and implemented the policy anyway.
"They said, ‘Oh, here’s a petition.’ Then they put it in the trash or a drawer, or whatever they did with it," Johnson said.
While most of the students agreed that schools should take students’ opinions more seriously, none expressed concern about the dress codes, surveillance cameras, student searches or other security measures that often alarm the ACLU and other civil rights watchdogs.
"There are some things you do have to sacrifice as a minor going to high school because the administration’s top priority is not only our education, but our safety," said Paradise Valley senior Dave Binegar, 17, vice president of the Teenage Democrats. "I personally feel OK getting rid of some of my civil rights to ensure that safety."
The students said many youths today are rude, irresponsible and apathetic and could not be trusted with increased freedom.
"How else do you expect (administrators) to run their schools?" said senior Eden Huang, 17, a member of the Teenage Republicans.
What students can do
Right to silence: If school officials or police suspect you have committed a crime, don’t explain, don’t lie and don’t confess. Ask to see your parents or a lawyer.
Privacy: If police ask to search you, your backpack or your vehicle without a warrant, don’t resist the search, but let the officer know you do not consent. School officials have greater freedom than police to conduct searches on campus but must believe that you in particular — not just "someone" — broke a law or school rule. Your locker and desk, however, belong to the school and may be searched without warning for any reason.
Free expression: You have a right to express your opinions at school as long as you do so in a way that does not "materially and substantially" disrupt classes. If your school tries to stop you from circulating privately funded fliers, petitions, newsletters or buttons on campus, you can call the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., at (703) 807-1904.
Sources: American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center
Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, accepts all invitations to speak at public schools. To schedule an appointment, call (602) 650-1854.