Supremes in the Schoolhouse

Reviewed by Diane D’Angelo, Reference Librarian, Suffolk University Law Library

Professor Sarah Redfield delivered an engaging and informative discussion entitled “Supremes in the Schoolhouse.” Specializing in education law, Professor Redfield is a tenured member of the Franklin Pierce Law Center faculty and founder of the Education Law Institute. She gave a general overview of the Supreme Court’s historical relationship with the nation’s schools and then delved deeper, discussing hot topics and illuminating them with specific noteworthy cases and opinions.

According to Professor Redfield, The Supreme Court’s involvement in schools has been “a bit hypocritical.” On the one hand, Supreme Court opinions have held that local school boards maintain the power to create and amend school policies and procedures, not the Courts. Yet, beginning in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, the Court has maintained an active role in schools. She explained that the Court is essentially saying, “We're not going to get involved, but let us tell you how to do everything.”

Like many education law experts, Professor Redfield believes that there is “too much law in schools.” With PowerPoint slides projected in the front of the room, and informative handouts in front of each audience member, she discussed specific cases that exemplify the Supreme Court’s involvement in schools. Education as a fundamental right, discipline, search and seizure, harassment and free speech are the five main issues that have dominated education law throughout history.

According to state laws, every child must go to school. But, Redfield asked, does that mean they have a fundamental right to be educated? The Supreme Court stepped into this debate and determined that children are entitled to “minimal” education. In Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), the Court ruled that schools are only responsible for ensuring appropriate education, not the “most” appropriate, and that states are not required to maximize the potential of students with disabilities commensurate with opportunities provided to children without disabilities.

In theory, school boards are in charge of discipline. But in reality, they are not completely in charge; corporal punishment is determined by state law, and the Supreme Court steps in from time to time. In Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977), the Supreme Court decided that “corporal punishment is not cruel and unusual” and that “the due process clause did not require notice and hearing prior to the imposition of corporal punishment in the public schools.” In Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975), the Court held that a student cannot be suspended without notice and opportunity to comment.Goss is a good example of the Court telling schools how they have to handle school discipline, concluding that a suspension procedure is required. Professor Redfield noted that the procedures and how they impact the rights of students is somewhat nebulous.

The Court has also reviewed discipline as it specifically applies to higher education and professional schools. In Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978), a student who flunked out of law school wanted to be readmitted. The Court sided with the law school and held that the academic decision process does not require a hearing. Redfield noted that schools generally win cases where there is an academic slant like this. In Boucher, 134 F.3d 821 (1998), an underground school newspaper published an article written by “self-professed hackers with anarchistic views,” entitled “how to be a hacker.” Specifically, it gave hints on how to guess passwords and change grades. Students from the underground newspaper were expelled for publishing the article. Citing previous Supreme Court opinions, a lower court determined that because of the “substantial disruption” that could be caused by the contents of the article, the students remained expelled.

The Fourth Amendment ensures that “government shall not violate the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But search and seizure has taken on new meaning after Columbine, September 11th and a surge of weapons, drugs and violence in schools. Power and discretion regarding search and seizure issues in schools lies with local school districts. Yet, the Supreme Court has dictated policy in this area as well. In Veronia School Dist v. Acton, 515 US 646 (1995), the Supreme Court addressed random urinalysis drug testing of student athletes and held that the “public school district's student athlete drug policy did not violate student's federal or state constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.” To further exemplify the Supreme Court’s stance on school search and seizure policies, and examine what some might deem infringements on individual rights, Redfield discussed New Jersey v. T.L.O. 469 U.S. 325 (1985). This case involved two high school girls who were found smoking by a teacher, in a school lavatory. When the girls denied smoking, the vice principal demanded to search the students' purses. The Court decided that while the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures applied to searches conducted by public school officials, the search of the student's purse was reasonable. Search and seizure is a hot topic, and we’ll be seeing more of these cases before the Supreme Court in the future. Redfield predicts that search and seizure arguments sold as safety issues will be approved by the Supreme Court.

Harassment was highlighted in Davis v Monroe County 526 U.S. 629 (1999). In this case, the Supreme Court examined what constitutes sexual harassment between peers and decided that schools could be held liable for a student harassing another student(s) where harassment was “severe and pervasive” and the school was given notice and acted with indifference.

The Supreme Court has heard a number of landmark cases involving freedom of speech in schools. “Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Perhaps one of the most popular and readily used phrases that came out of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District,393 U.S. 503 (1969), this statement has become a catch phrase for school search and seizure issues. In Tinker, school policy forbade students from wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam conflict. This policy was deemed unconstitutional because it denied students the right to freely express their opinions.

In Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), the Court limited freedom of speech in school assemblies. In Kincaid v. Gibson, 236 F 3d 342 (2001), a yearbook student committee at Kentucky State University decided to use a purple foil cover on the yearbook. The University administration stopped distribution holding that the publication was “poor quality” and the color was “inappropriate.” A lower court cited earlier Supreme Court decisions, and determined that the color of the yearbook did not cause substantial disruption, and the students won. Lastly, and perhaps most interesting to librarians, Redfield discussed Board of Education of Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 US 853 (1982). In Pico, school board discretion was pitted against free speech when a school board banned books from high and junior high school libraries. More specifically the Court addressed whether or not the First Amendment limits a school board’s discretion to remove books from a library. The Court decided that the school board’s discretion was not unlimited. In the end, the Court ruled that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

Professor Redfield concluded with a discussion of hot topics that are sure to make their way to the Supreme Court in the near future, like school testing and federal education funding. Kudos to Professor Redfield for encapsulating a semester’s worth of information into a well organized and enlightening forty-five minute presentation.

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