The Universal Notebook: Honor code or inquisition?

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As someone who is on record as believing that what a student does on his/her own time is none of a school’s business (The Universal Notebook, June 22, 2009), I am pleased to see that a Yarmouth family has seen fit to challenge the high school’s extracurricular honor code in court.

Given that the courts seem to share the prevailing school and social attitude that minors have fewer constitutional rights than the rest of us, I’d be delightfully surprised if the family prevails, but it’s a stand worth taking.

The lawsuit arose from a recent incident in which photographs of students at a party appeared on Facebook and some do-gooder called the pictures to the attention of school officials. Several student-athletes were called into the office, confronted with the pictures and interrogated.

A principal’s office is not a court of law, so I suppose the argument can be made that due process and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination do not apply, but as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing very honorable about subjecting a student to an inquisition.

A picture of a teenager holding a beer can does not prove he or she was drinking. If so, every kid who ever participated in a bottle drive could be suspended. The picture of the student in question, in fact, only shows her holding a silver can which could be soda. Still, she was interrogated and talked into incriminating herself without benefit of legal counsel or having parents present.

Police officers can’t do that, but apparently, school administrators can.

I understand teenagers having an illicit beer at a party. What I don’t understand is why they allow themselves to be photographed. Even less do I understand why anyone would rat them out. Nothing very honorable about that, either.

When I was in high school in the 1960s, most of my classmates occasionally took a drink, but no one ever got caught. I’m sure my own daughters occasionally violated the honor code when they were students at Yarmouth High School, but it never would have occurred to me to turn them in. Students and parents only sign honor codes because it is mandatory.

In my experience, the Yarmouth honor code was generally observed back when it was only in force during a given sports season. After a notorious episode in which the baseball team threw a big post-season party complete with a stripper and couldn’t be punished for it, teeth were added to the code by putting it in force for the entire school year. It has been widely violated ever since. Students I have talked with suggest that as many as 60 percent of athletes violate the code at one time or another.

So what are school officials supposed to do when presented with “evidence” (and I use the term loosely) of underage drinking? Look the other way? Maybe so. That’s exactly what a previous Yarmouth principal and assistant principal did back a decade ago when they discovered that seniors camping out overnight on school grounds had been drinking. They simply asked the students to pick up their cans and bottles before the underclassmen arrived.

The parent lawsuit seeking to protect a child’s constitutional rights will not be popular among the “a rule’s a rule” crowd, but when a rule is broken with the frequency with which teenagers violate the honor code – not just in Yarmouth, but in every town in Maine – it’s time to start asking whether it’s a good rule.

I say it’s not.

Yarmouth’s school attorney argues that not allowing school officials to police the private lives of students would “have the effect of seriously undermining the school’s authority over its students.”

From my experience, nothing undermines respect for authority like the unnecessary use of it.

Yarmouth educators are good people doing a great job. They do a wonderful job educating our kids. That’s what we pay them for. We just don’t need them policing or punishing students for things that have nothing whatsoever to do with school.

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The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.