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Suspicion in the Classroom

Critics say school-search bill may violate students’ consitutional rights and force teachers to act as cops


Adopt a policy for searching students or lose federal funding. That’s the ultimatum associated with the Student and Teacher Safety Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 19.

The legislation would require school boards to establish a policy allowing full-time teachers and school officials, acting on reasonable suspicion, to search any student they wish in order to ensure that the school remains free from weapons, drugs or other dangerous materials. Districts that fail to enact the guidelines would become ineligible for federal funds through the Safe and Drug Free School program, from which New York state received more than $7 million in the 2006-07 academic year.

Supporters of the Student and Teacher Safety Act argue that the measure would increase safety in schools while alleviating apprehension about liability for teachers and other school officials. Opponents, although they echo the need to improve safety, question the bill’s potential to violate students’ constitutional rights as well as the appropriateness of expanding the role of educators.

In defining student searches, the Student and Teacher Act fails to describe the scope of permissible searches, said Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the legislation because of its broad language. This ambiguity leaves wiggle room for school officials to construe the bill as allowing for random, wide-scale searches of all students, even those for whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

“What we encourage school administrators to do is to have a reasonable suspicion that an individual student or group of students are participating in a violation of school rules or criminal law and base their search on that,” McCurdy said, offering an alternative to broad searching policies.

Absent such a clause limiting the scope of searches to those students for whom there is individualized suspicion, the ACLU has stated that the Student and Teacher Safety Act may not stand up to constitutional scrutiny.

Students in public schools are protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1985. While affirming students’ rights against unreasonable searches, the court’s decision in New Jersey v. T.L.O. acknowledged that certain limits on this right are legitimate because students are minors and in the temporary custody of the state. Student searches, therefore, can be conducted without a warrant and need only be based on “probable cause.”

The text of the Student and Teacher Safety Act points to the 1985 decision as justification for the bill’s legitimacy. However, that decision is silent on the question of the constitutionality of conducting random searches without suspicion. In another student-search case from 2002, the Supreme Court that ruled random drug testing of students who participate in extracurricular activities was reasonable but again did not clarify whether schoolwide searches constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Even though the Supreme Court has not handed down a definitive answer, ACLU representatives argue there’s enough evidence to conclude that searches without individualized suspicion infringe upon students’ Fourth Amendment rights. They point to court decisions, including language from New Jersey v. T.L.O., which indicate that exceptions to the requirement of individualized suspicion are acceptable only when the privacy interests at stake are minimal and protections are in place to ensure the student’s privacy.

Individualized suspicion also is simply good public policy, McCurdy and ACLU director Caroline Fredrickson wrote last week in a letter to the House of Representatives urging opposition to the bill.

Constitutional issues aside, the Student and Teacher Safety Act is getting mixed reviews among education associations. The largest teacher union, the National Education Association, has expressed its support, while other teachers unions, including the American Teachers Federation, have objected to the measure.

Many organizations critical of the legislation point to the increased demand the legislation would put on teachers as the primary source of their concern.

“We do not support putting teachers in that position,” said Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s a role that really requires a well-trained expert, who understands both the interaction with the students and understands the law and the rights of the students.”

Involving teachers in the bill would help keep drugs and violence out of schools while affirming their control of the classroom, said Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) in a press release from his congressional office.

“The teacher’s role is as an educator, and the value of a good teacher-student relationship is not going to be enhanced by students viewing the teacher as a safety officer with respect to something as significant as searches,” said Iannuzzi in response to this argument. “Teachers should clearly be part of making a parent and students feel that a school is a safe place to be, but taking it to what I consider to be the extreme by putting teachers in charge of searches would not be an appropriate step.”

Instead, Iannuzzi proposed addressing the root social causes that compromise school safety. The bill is little more than a “diversion” from real issues, Iannuzzi suggested, churned out by mid-election-cycle politicians.

Davis, for example, is in the midst of a fight to retain his seat in Congress. Pollsters show a nearly dead-even competition with his Democratic challenger.

Election-time politics also may have motivated members of the House when they opted for a voice vote on the measure as opposed to the standard roll-call vote, which enables constituents to know how each representative voted.

“I look at it as something that’s going to make its mark prior to the election process and is unlikely to follow the flow after that,” Iannuzzi said of the chances this bill would also pass the Senate and eventually become law.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which has referred it to committee. The Senate did not have similar legislation on the table prior to passage in the House.

Although it abides by case law from the Supreme Court and the New York State Court of Appeals, New York’s Department of Education has no state-mandated policy about student searches. Local districts are free to develop their own policies as long as they satisfy criteria established by the courts.

—Nicole Klaas

What a Week

Please Properly Dispose of Corpse

A Swedish company, Promessa Organic AB, has developed a more ecologically friendly method for burying the dead. The process, called ecological burial or promession, aims to address cemetary plot shortages. The method involves deep-freezing a corpse in liquid nitrogen. What results is a brittle body that can be broken down into a powder through mechanical vibration. The remaining dust is dehydrated. After the approximately two-hour process is complete, the powdery remains are placed in a small, biodegradable box and buried in a shallow grave. Within about a year, the remains and burial box will have completely decomposed. In 2004, Joenkoeping, a city in southwest Sweden, announced it would become the first customer of Promessa. The city's promession facility is expected to be operational in 2007.

Driving Mrs. Hevesi

New York comptroller Alan Hevesi has apologized for the oversight. He says that he always intended to reimburse the state for using one of his employees as his wife's personal chauffer. The cost of this service over four years? $82,688. The one-term Democrat is up for re-election this November. He used to lead his Republican challenger Christopher Callaghan in the polls by a wide margin. Lately, that margin has narrowed.

Cover Woes

Outraged bloggers are in an uproar about Newsweek's choice for this week's cover image. The magazine's international editions, distributed throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America, display the title "Losing Afghanistan" and are accompanied by a photograph of a Taliban fighter shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade. In America, newsstands stocked issues featuring a photo of photographer Annie Leibovitz with several children for a story titled "My Life in Pictures." The Afghanistan article still appears in the issue, but under a different headline.

Bin Laden: Dead Again?

The FBI's most wanted terrorist may also be nearing a record for most reported deaths. The latest was printed Saturday in a French newspaper, which reported that Osama bin Laden died of typhoid in Pakistan last month. Government officials were quick to cast doubt upon the allegation. United States and French officials were among those saying they could not confirm the report.

Pleasing the seniors: Gillibrand and McNulty pledge not to privatize Social Security.

Where They Stand

Citizen Action gets a commitment from Gillibrand and McNulty to oppose privatization of Social Security

Kirsten Gillibrand stood with Con gressman Mike McNulty (D-Green Island) on Monday and signed a pledge to publicly oppose President Bush’s push to privatize Social Security.

“Social Security is a compact between generations. It keeps seniors out of poverty,” said Gillibrand. “If we didn’t have Social Security, more than half of seniors would be in poverty. Social Security saves lives, and it keeps families safe and happy. We should come up with ideas that strengthen it, not weaken it.”

The signing was organized by Citizen Action, whose members say that they have tried for two years to get a similar commitment from incumbent John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park).

“Citizen Action has been asking John Sweeney to take a position on Social Security for almost two years, but Sweeney has refused to tell his constituents where he stands,” said Citizen Action member Al Ormsby.

According to Gillibrand, her stand was simply a matter of common sense. “Putting Social Security at the risk of the stock market,” she said, “is simply bad public policy.”

McNulty said that the future of Social Security is at stake in the upcoming midterm elections. “President Bush and the Republican House leadership have made it clear that if Republicans control Congress, they’ll make Social Security privatization a priority next year,” he said. “That’s why it is so important that voters elect Kirsten Gillibrand—so that we can have a majority in Congress that will reject the president’s dangerous plan to privatize Social Security.”

Earlier this year, Bush said, “If we can’t get it done this year, I’m going to try next year. And if we can’t get it done next year, I’m going to try the year after that, because it is the right thing to do.”

The event came to a close with a small group of pro-Sweeney protestors shouting: “Release your taxes!,” referring to questions raised by the Sweeney campaign about Gillibrand’s investment history. They have accused Gillibrand of war profiteering because of stock her husband owns in BAE, a British arms manufacturer. Gillibrand claims her husband earned the stock while working on the factory floor of the arms company when he was a young man.

Citizen Action members responded with chants of “Stop stealing the money!” and “Sweeney’s afraid to debate!”

—David King

The Waiting Game

Albany Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) said she and a number of other concerned parents and students waited outside for hours on Sunday while Mayor Jerry Jennings and Police Chief Tuffey met with school-board members on how to deal with the violence that erupted at Albany High on Friday, which included several fights and a stabbing.

“So many people, parents, members of community came to Academy Park wanting to communicate to those in the meeting, and we were refused,” Smith said. “It doesn’t work to say you are including the community in solutions and then have meetings behind closed doors.”

On Monday, Albany High students found themselves being herded through metal detectors and checked for weapons (pictured: Albany High School), a process that took hours and made a number of students miss classes. Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) insisted, “The city’s problems are not coming from inside the schools. The city’s problems are reaching into the schools.” Smith agreed: “There is misery here, and until we are able to implement some responses to deal with the trauma, the alienation that the kids are clearly communicating, we are not going to be able to get anywhere. Metal detectors don’t address underlying causes.”

—David King

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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