It took a couple of months to determine whether John Dryden, would be best described as a high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois, or as an ex- high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois. That part had a happy ending: he was not fired, as appeared at one point to be likely, for his act of ethical heroism.
In April, he was directed by the school board to distribute a survey on so-called “emotional learning” to his students. The results of the test, created and scored by Multi-Health Systems, were to be evaluated by comparing them to statistical data obtained from a large sample of students of similar ages given the same test. The MHS test included thirty-four questions regarding the use of drugs, alcohol, and the students’ emotions. Though Dryden was supposed to assure his students that their responses would be confidential, they were not. Any student whose answers raised concerns was to be sent to the school’s counselors.
After the teacher picked up the survey forms from his mailbox shortly before his first class of the day, he noticed that each survey form had a student’s name on it and that the questions involved under-age drinking and drug use. He had just finished teaching a unit on the Bill of Rights, and recognized a looming Fifth Amendment violation while fearing that his students, who were used to following orders, would not be aware that their rights were in peril. The survey, he correctly surmised, was state-compelled self-incrimination, and a breach of his students’ right to refuse to incriminate themselves.There was no time to confer with administrators, so he told his students that they did not have to complete the forms if doing so involved admitting illegal behavior.
How many teachers would 1) have the presence of mind to do this, and 2) have the guts? Not many, I fear, and Dryden’s experience shows why. He was reprimanded, and docked a day’s pay.
The school maintained that it was not going to report the results to law enforcement officials, and that Dryden foiled a legitimate effort to gain information helpful to the educational process. Tell it to the Marines. There was no way for Dryden or the students to be certain of that. The exercise had all the earmarks of compelled self-incrimination, and even if by some series of loopholes in the existing law on the matter such a survey could be given, Dryden was correct to err on the side of his students’ constitutional rights, which schools frequently and intentionally ignore. As college student Rainsford Alexandra wrote in the Huffington Post,
“Lessons in freedom begin with the youth, the students, the ones with the capacity to encourage America into a new age of personal consideration, while strengthening the Amendments which build this country’s identity. In classes like John Dryden’s, students become citizens.”
And teachers become unemployed. Dryden’s warning spread, and the students of other teachers who were not so sensitive to the issue—or educated, or civicly literate—decided to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights. The whole survey exercise was a flop, and only through a public outcry and negative web publicity was Dryden’s job saved.
Dryden accomplished many admirable and important objectives by his actions. He protected his students. He taught them about their rights as citizens, and that they are not, thank to Mr. Madison, Mason and the rest, simply slaves of the state. He foiled an unfair and badly conceived exercise by the school that ignored the rights of their students, and he alerted other schools, parents and students to a serious problem of long-standing: schools like to keep their charges unaware that they have rights, and definitely don’t encourage them to exercise them.
Dryden is, for now, still both a teacher and an Ethics Hero. But that letter of reprimand is in his file…let’s see how long he keeps his job.
You can brief yourself, and your kids, on the law on application of the Fifth to students in school by reading the article here.
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem
Graphic: KC Chronicle