Indiana’s “principal in your bedroom” bill attracts diverse array of critics

When the microphones were left open at the end of the Senate committee hearing on Indiana’s “Put a Principal in Your Bedroom Bill,” a supporter of HB 1169 was heard to exclaim, “None of these people testified against it in the House!”

Ouch, democracy. It stings.

After Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, it appears that the lobbyists for school boards, superintendents and principals will not be able to quietly sneak through the most extreme anti-student law in the country. State Rep. Eric Koch‘s bill — which would let schools suspend or expel students for saying anything they disapprove of, even at home or on summer break — got a rough reception at the committee and was held until next week for further study.

Some of the most persuasive testimony came from the Indiana State Bar, which speaks with the authority of adherence to the Constitution rather than any ideological agenda. The Bar gave senators a letter from a constitutional law expert, Prof. Fred H. Cate of Indiana University’s law school, who called HB 1169 “a remarkably broad grant of authority that … provides too little direction to school authorities and too little protection for the constitutionally protected rights of students.”

Passing such a law serves neither the interest in protecting the rights of individual students nor the interest in providing a safe educational environment conducive to learning.

Equally compelling was the testimony of multiple witnesses from the NAACP and the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, who enlightened the committee about racial disparity in the imposition of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. It makes little sense to entrust many thousands more cases to a system that already works so unjustly, and that provides no fair opportunity for a wrongfully accused person to clear his name.

While the senators heard quite a bit about the First Amendment and the workings of school discipline, what they didn’t hear was any genuine explanation for why such a drastic expansion of school authority is necessary.

The two justifications publicly offered by the school lobby — cyberbullying and cheating — both fall apart upon cursory examination.

Indiana already has both a comprehensive bullying law and an online harassment law that outlaws what most people understand as “cyberbullying” behavior. Since existing Indiana law — the law that Rep. Koch is trying to amend — lets school punish “illegal” off-campus behavior, then behavior in violation of Indiana’s online harassment law is already punishable today.

As for cheating, no school has yet explained how it is possible for a student to engage in cheating behavior that is not already punishable at school. If the cheating results in the student turning in a paper or an exam that is falsified or plagiarized, then that is in-school behavior punishable through existing channels. There is no evidence that any student has ever successfully challenged a cheating penalty on the grounds that his cheating took place at home.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the only new rationale offered by school lobbyists was the need to punish a student who uses profane or uncivil language toward a principal or superintendent that he bumps into off-campus on the weekend.

And that rationale is closer to the truth of the matter. Schools are not seeking new powers to deal with bullying or cheating, where they have ample existing authority. They are seeking authority to punish criticism of school administrators.

There are places where it is a punishable offense to say things that upset government officials. China. Iran. Eritrea. Burma. It’s troubling that this is the list to which school lobbyists are so eager to add “Indiana.”