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Phelan: Comparing student surveys – Batavia High School vs. Geneva High School

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

A recent Batavia High School survey about at-risk behaviors has led to a firestorm of comments and the punishment of one social studies teacher.

As the Kane County Chronicle has previously reported, Batavia teacher John Dryden was docked one day’s pay after warning his students about their Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves before taking the survey. Every parent and student I have spoken to has agreed with Dryden’s actions – so why haven’t most members of the Batavia School District 101 board? My questions to the school board and superintendent – sent via email – were not answered. Nor was an email sent to Dryden.

I asked a 2013 BHS graduate about the survey. She informed me that the survey already had printed names on it and asked questions about at-risk behavior, such as drinking, smoking and thoughts of suicide. I asked the student about the fact that the surveys already had names printed on them and whether that caused students to answer questions about illegal behaviors falsely. She informed me that some students did misrepresent themselves due to the interrogative nature of the questions. 

I have taken similar surveys at Geneva High School over the years. However, I cannot recall a survey that already had my name on it and asked me about illegal activities. The most recent survey I can remember required us to write our name and grade, then answer two questions: whether or not we needed to talk to someone in the guidance office about ourselves or another student. We were informed that – if we did not turn it in – we would be called down to the guidance office. 

The survey we were given did not feel intrusive or uncomfortable. If I would have needed to talk with a counselor or social worker about any behavioral issue – whether that behavior was illegal or something concerning my mental health – I would have been able to without being put on the spot. 

The backlash surrounding the Batavia survey comes from the fact that, according to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s interpretations of that, you legally have the right to not incriminate yourself. The case Miranda v. Arizona helped define that precedent and set forth the doctrine that anything you say under interrogation can and will be used against you.

I learned about these basic rights given to all Americans this year in my AP United States Government and Politics class. If the Batavia school board would like to argue the students’ lack of Fifth Amendment rights, I highly recommend they read the majority opinion of Tinker v. Des Moines, which states that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. 

The reason I know so much about these cases is because my government teacher drilled them into my head so that we would always know when our civil liberties were being taken away. After studying the U.S. Constitution in every social studies class of my high school career, I have only one question for the Batavia school board: Why are teachers allowed, and required, to inform their students about Fifth Amendment protections many days of the school year, except the day when the students’ rights are called into question? 

• Courtney Phelan just graduated from Geneva High School. She is an outgoing and energetic young writer who likes to swim, read and participate in general teenage activities. She can be contacted at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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