Indiana’s HB 1169 risks unleashing zero-tolerance “government parents”

Unless an outbreak of common sense sweeps through the Statehouse, Indiana is about to become the most frightening place in America to be a kid.

House Bill 1169, pushed by the special-interest lobbyists for school administrators, would unleash school principals to control essentially anything their students do – anytime, anywhere – that they disapprove of.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, would let public schools suspend or expel students who do or say anything that may “reasonably be considered to be an interference with school purposes or an educational function,” even on a Saturday at the shopping mall.

A hearing on the bill is set for Wednesday in front of the Senate Education Committee. It has already passed the House.

While the bill is being sold to the public as a response to cyberbullying, the word “bullying” appears nowhere in it, and the authority it would grant to schools is in no way limited to policing student-on-student attacks.

If the bill becomes law, schools will be able to completely shut down the discussion of any topic they find disagreeable, since it is almost always possible to argue that stirring up public dissent “interferes” with school purposes. Whistleblowers and journalists will be the first to suffer.

Students have already lost the ability to discuss controversial issues on school grounds during school time – thanks to principals like Illinois’s Bob Miller. Last school year, Miller used his authority as principal of St. Charles East High School to stop student journalists from writing about public reaction to the removal of a popular coach, and about the prevalence of hazing among athletic teams.

It is this kind of “public-relations-run-wild” behavior that House Bill 1169 would unleash on students 24/7. Students will face suspension or expulsion just because the principal decides that a student’s comments in a letter-to-the-editor of the local newspaper, or in an interview with a television station, might “interfere” with his ability to promote a positive image.

Because students can no longer blow the whistle on school wrongdoing and mismanagement during the school day, it’s essential that they can safely to do so when they leave the campus without fear of retaliation.

Schools can already punish illegal off-campus conduct, such as being caught dealing drugs. If the behavior is not illegal but is merely unhealthy or antisocial, there are remedies short of suspension – chief among them, calling in the parents. (Remember them?)

The disciplinary system in most public schools is already badly broken. Study after study has documented that suspensions are handed out in a racially discriminatory manner, for minor (and at times imaginary) violations that used to be dealt with by a stern lecture. Dumping thousands more cases into that system is the equivalent of pouring ten gallons of water into a leaky five-gallon jug.

If HB 1169 becomes law, it will not be long before we see principals suspending the girl whose weekend wardrobe “interferes” with the school’s ability to promote a professional appearance, or whose fondness for rap music “interferes” with the teaching of proper grammar.

Worse, the principal seeking to conceal his school’s hazing problem will be empowered to tell student journalists, “Not only am I pulling that story from the newspaper, but if I catch you complaining to the school board or the press, I’ll consider that ‘interference with school purposes’ and have you expelled.”

Anyone who doubts that principals would behave so nonsensically need remember only two words: “Zero tolerance.” We have already seen the disastrous consequences when school administrators are turned loose to punish anything that remotely resembles a weapon or a drug. A principal who cannot tell the difference between a cake-cutter and a chainsaw cannot be trusted to distinguish between bullying and journalism.

Fortunately, HB 1169 is certain to collapse if constitutionally challenged. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on student speech rights, Morse v. Frederick, Justice Samuel Alito – who cast the decisive vote – wrote an opinion that strongly cautioned against giving schools authority over anything that “interferes with a school’s educational mission,” almost the exact words chosen by Rep. Koch.

“The ‘educational mission’ of the public schools is defined by the elected and appointed public officials with authority over the schools and by the school administrators and faculty. As a result, some public schools have defined their educational missions as including the inculcation of whatever political and social views are held by the members of these groups,” Alito warned.

We would be outraged if any government agency other than a school lobbied for the power to silence criticism and dissent. We should be equally outraged when the lobbying comes from principals and superintendents. Government officials who seek to insulate themselves against questioning are the ones most urgently in need of it.