The founders of this country, the authors of the Constitution, had a very healthy and justified skepticism about government and its penchant to intrude into its citizens’ private lives. The animating theme behind the Bill of Rights was to protect the individual rights of man against the intrusive, often destructive, powers of government.
While we have been fairly vigilant against intrusions by the federal and state governments, we have let our guard down with regard to local government. We have permitted our schools to claim and exercise powers never specifically given to them, and we have not even realized our mistake.
We have permitted our schools to redefine and expand their powers of discipline, to the point that the schools are usurping our fundamental rights as parents to parent our children. We have allowed schools to claim and exercise “enhanced” disciplinary and investigative powers against our children and against us. Yarmouth’s Extra Curricular Honor Code is Exhibit A in this argument.
The Code claims to the schools the right to investigate and discipline our children for behavior outside the ambit of the schools, outside school grounds, beyond school-sanctioned or school-sponsored events. The Code reaches into our homes. It permits the school, and entices parents and classmates to spy on students’ Facebook and social networking sites and report “bad” conduct to the school.
I have read the Code. Several of its provisions are clearly violations of the Constitution. No due process rights of any kind are given. The Code is remarkably vague – most of its provisions give the students absolutely no indication of what behavior is proscribed. One of its provisions claims that any behavior the student engages in that “might embarrass the community, school, team, coach, or him/herself” is prohibited. What does that even mean? The Code is over-broad – it reaches behavior that it never intended to reach. For instance, if my child has a glass of wine in my home during our Passover seder, it is a violation of the Code.
We have allowed the schools to engage in this power grab. It is now mandatory for every student in Yarmouth High School and Middle School who wishes to participate in any extra-curricular activity to sign the Code. If they refuse to sign, they are not permitted to participate in the activity. No sports, music, theater, photography, crew or other interests unless they and you are willing to abdicate fundamental rights, formerly protected by the Constitution.
Many parents, and even my children, sometimes summarily dismiss my rants on this topic. What is the harm? The school is just helping to promote good values. That, however, should not be the school’s mission. Schools exist to teach our children academic and vocational subjects so that they will be ready to enter college and/or the workforce. As my children’s parent, I shall happily shoulder the job of parenting them and teaching values. If the teachers would like to lead by example, that would be wonderful. I guarantee you that 10 years from now, our students will remember the teachers who inspired them, but they will have no clue what Yarmouth’s “Core Values” were, except to recall them as useless platitudes.
The harm I fear is that by sitting idly by and permitting the schools to intrude into our children’s private lives, and into our homes, we are teaching our children a very important lesson – be passive when the government tries to violate your rights of privacy. This lesson turns our founders’ most important values completely on their head.
Please remember that our taxes pay the salaries of the administrators who have endorsed this policy. Even if the law permitted this policy, we are in charge of how we wish our schools to operate. It is up to us to determine whether we truly wish the schools to be engaged in this kind of conduct. Frankly, given the economic woes we struggle with, and the budgetary constraints that have resulted, I do not wish one dime of my taxes to be spent on drafting or enforcing the Code. I would rather Yarmouth administrators concentrate on running the schools smoothly and getting our kids ready for college and jobs. Yarmouth schools should teach our kids; Yarmouth parents should parent them.
Michael J. Waxman is a Yarmouth resident and parent.