July 2015 Podcast: Launching an app for student rights

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By Student Press Law Center

Rachel Gunther, associate director of Youth on Board, discusses her organization’s new smartphone app for student rights.

Frank LoMonte: It’s the end of July, and stores are starting to put backpacks and binders on a back-to-school special, so it’s that time of year when people are starting to take stock of their teachers and their schedules and everything else that they need to get prepared for a new semester. Relatively few of them, however, are going to take the time to take the stock of their constitutional rights, and the statutes and the policies that might have an impact on their ability to exercise those rights in schools.

We’re going to talk about awareness of student rights and how to harness technology to make students more aware of and able to assert, protect, and improve the state of their rights with Rachel Gunther of Youth on Board in Boston, an organization that’s developed an innovative student rights app to help with that awareness and outreach.

This is Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and thanks for joining us for another edition of the SPLC’s monthly podcast. The SPLC brings you this podcast to keep you updated on developments in the law affecting the rights of students and the educators who work with them, and you can find out much more about those laws by visiting the SPLC.org website or subscribing to our Twitter feed @SPLC. Rachel Gunther is with us — for the last 13 years, she’s been the associate director of an organization Youth on Board, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts that works with youth organizing and youth development. This has been her career ever since graduating from Boston University, where she holds a Master’s in Social Work.

Youth on Board came across our radar because of some publicity about a new app, Boston Student Rights, that they’re launching for Android phones and also on the web. You can check them out at BostonStudentRights.org. As that project takes flight, we wanted to talk to Rachel about the state of student rights in the Boston schools, what their organization is doing to help young people become more aware of and more involved in the asserting, protecting, and improving their rights. So Rachel, thanks so much for being with us here, and please take a moment to introduce the work of Youth on Board and what you do.

Rachel Gunther: Sure, Frank, thanks for having me. A little over 20 years ago, Youth on Board started primarily looking at getting youth involved in governance of organizations, of schools, of churches, whatever it may be. And we provided trainings across the country and across the world actually — looking at how to improve youth-adult partnerships, how to have adults sort of understand how to communicate, understand young people better, and young people how to work with adults, and really digging in very deeply and looking at what we call adultism, and how adults can treat young people with little respect and sort of putting off their ideas and how this really gets in the way of young people really taking the lead and making decisions that affect their lives and their communities. So we did this for about 10 years and then we started to get involved in public education, and about 15 years ago, we got called in by the Boston Public Schools to help them revamp their Student Advisory Council. Since then, we’ve been having a partnership with the Boston Public Schools co-running their Boston Student Advisory Council, so we have this sort of unique partnership where we are an outside organization working with an in-district project that is mandated. This is a state mandate that some districts do more or less than others. Boston fortunately really has taken on the Student Advisory Council as a real meaningful project, and that’s shown by putting time and resources and having us bring in this partnership.

LoMonte: That’s a terrific statute that I hope more young people will become aware of. We should post a link to it in connection with this podcast. If people become aware that state laws like that mandating student involvement do exist, then that would be an amazing civics project for young people in other states to work on, to try to bring their states up to the standard that Massachusetts has already achieved.

Gunther: Right, and I don’t know, that would be an interesting project to look at also — I’m not sure how many districts in Massachusetts are actually doing this, and I’m not sure how many states across the country have a similar kind of statute. I think you’re right — many, many places in Massachusetts, students have no idea this is even something they should be doing, and if they did, right, the possibilities are tremendous what could happen. So, fortunately there was a school committee member about 15 years ago who said, ‘I’m going to own this thing.’

That’s oftentimes what it takes — someone has to, you know, really get behind this and understand what it needs to happen, that there needs to be resources and adult support to make this kind of thing really, really worth it. You can’t just do it saying, ‘oh yeah, we should go do that and it’s gonna happen in a way that’s really meaningful and worthwhile, that’s really going to have real change for the young people in the community.’ So we were again really fortunate that sort of the stars aligned, and the right people were there to make this happen. And it takes sort of pushing and reminding people how important this is to make it keep happening, because it’s an easy thing to let go. It often is, unfortunately.

LoMonte: That’s so right, especially when you’re dealing with students who have a self-imposed time frame within which there’s going to be a 100 percent memory dump and a 100 percent turnover, and so student rights are something that require constant reminding and constant enforcement. I wonder, something that you have managed to do successfully that relatively few student rights organizations have is to work collaboratively and in partnership with a school system. Clearly, having a state statutory mandate can’t hurt, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that diplomacy. It is oftentimes quite hard to help school leaders and people in authority understand student rights as an asset and not as an impediment to getting their work done, and I wonder what Youth on Board has been able to do successfully there.

Gunther: Definitely, it is a balancing act, I guess you could say — sort of the push and pull that we are always trying to figure out. How much do you push before we’re going to get pushed back? But I’d say for all of our work for Youth on Board, and this clearly goes into BSAC, is that we always talk about all of our work as based on relationship building and building positive relationships, whether it’s between peers or between adults or between, you know, both adults and young people. So a lot of the work and our staff work, as well as how we work with our young people and give them support and training about how to build supportive and positive relationships — we talk about sort of relationship building and communication and appreciations as a skill. We are very, very specific about, how do you build positive relationships? So, to do just that, even if someone feels like they’re on the opposite end of a policy or a belief system, you have to find common ground, you have to be respectful, you have to use language that’s going to be effective, you have to be supportive. There’s just a way that we do our work that clearly is working. It works well to bridge potential divides and to build relationships that could be adversarial and to understand how to get people to understand your perspective, and a lot of that, with young people that we always talk about is when young people speak from the heart and from their experiences, they know better than anybody what’s happening in their schools, and if they can speak persuasively and build these relationships, that’s how real change is going to happen, because it’s a personal experience. They have built these relationships before they even are asking the tough questions or making the requests.

And we’ve built — at this point, we have 15 years of background to say that people know in the community that BSAC knows what we’re doing, that we’re respectful, that we are ready to take on real work, and that we are well-informed about policies. So when we come to the table now, we have all of this history behind us that allows us to really keep pushing, pushing for what students want, what change they want to have happen.

LoMonte: Well, I gave the website a moment ago for the Student Rights App, I should also give out the website for youthonboard.org. You can read more about Rachel’s work there. And I want to focus in on this project — Boston Student Rights’ website and smartphone app, which seems like such a savvy idea to harness the technology that young people are already using everyday, to try to get them involved in and excited about their rights. So can you talk a little bit about where that idea came from and where you see it going?

Gunther: Absolutely, so over these past 15 years, we started passing out — well, I should say, students came to BSAC and said, ‘I have a concern about when our school begins in the morning,’ ‘I have a concern about the quality of our food,’ ‘I have a concern about being locked out of our school if I’m five minutes late and they send me — they say I can’t come to school anymore.’ So year after year, and month after month, there were more and more policies that students had concerns about. We then went to the school committee or the superintendent depending on what the policy was, and for the most part, we were incredibly successful in changing policy after policy after policy that students believed were inappropriate. Students worked with the administration to develop and devise and then get the school committee to pass a policy that was more appropriate and what the students thought was what they wanted to be.

So over the years we were building this list of policies that were student-led, student-directed and had been successful, and we started having these yearly student-rights campaigns and wrote up little cards and made posters that we brought around to schools. That was very successful and it was a very good organizing tool, and then about a year ago, there was an idea to, as you were saying, to harness technology and sort of — students are on their phones, for better or worse, all the time. What would be another way to get students to have immediate access to the most current policies that have been passed to support their rights, but also at the same time, tell them what are their responsibilities as a student? There’s also a balance there that BSAC understands is really important, that it can’t always just be about ‘what are our rights?’ but it’s also what’s students’ end in all of this? And what is expected of them under the law, and what is expected of the administration to be following as well, based on these policies. Then in addition to that, we wanted to have resources for students whose rights have been violated, if they have not been followed appropriately.

This primarily came out of the school pushout and school-to-prison pipeline work we were doing, and that students were being suspended, expelled and pushed out of school for inappropriate reasons. We had been working on, for many years, developing a new code of conduct for the district, and we’d also been involved with a new policy across the state that was implementing restorative justice and that uses suspension as a last resort, and so these policies that we had been working on in a working group. Again, this is another way that we work collaboratively with the district, that we had alumni in BSAC members on this advisory council to help develop this code of conduct, so students were there as it was being written, working with lawyers and administrators. But the issue then became, now we have this new policy, but is it actually being implemented correctly? Do teachers and administrators in all the public schools understand and know how to implement them? Do they know it exists? So we took that on as another challenge within BSAC. It’s not just passing the policy, but it’s making sure that it’s actually being implemented well. And that’s another piece that BSAC, in all of our policies we passed, we want to make sure that the implementation was really going well. And we go out there, sort of as watchdogs almost, to make sure that things are going well and people can come to us to say, you know, whether they are or aren’t, and we can help work on behalf of those places that aren’t doing a good job.

So, back to the app, so the idea came as okay, let’s pull together an app that provides a place, a succinct place where people can get information about their rights, their responsibilities, as well as how the process should be and in case their rights were violated, what exactly should happen, and what resources are available to help them through that process — legal resources, social resources, parental resources. This is something that can be used at any time to help them guide this sort of very tricky, actually, process in case they need it. One of the other pieces that we’re hoping to implement in the future is a place where students can track, where we could track those grievances and violations of the code implementation, and we’re hoping that to be in the phase two of our app. Right now, the app is being used as [an] information resource, but we hope to have it as a way for students to be able to give us information to what’s happening out in the schools themselves.

LoMonte: Yeah, well just to reinforce two points here. Point number one, you have to be in the one of the handful of states with an excellent student free expression statute already, and states do have the ability to pass their own statutes that give students more rights than the bare minimum afforded to them by U.S. Constitution. A handful of states have done so, and Massachusetts was one of the very first to do so after the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court Hazelwood ruling, so that Massachusetts has essentially always been an anti-Hazelwood state, one where students have the ability to speak freely, including in student publications, so long as they do not substantially disrupt the operations of the school. So that’s a terrific right for young people in Massachusetts to be aware of.

The other point is once you pass a statute like that, once you obtain excellent policies on the books as Boston Student Advisory Council, with your help, has been successful in doing, it’s still a constant battle to remind people that those rights exist and to make sure that they’re enforced. So often when rights are first implemented, there’s quite a lot of publicity and excitement around them, but those things fade with time, students turn over, teachers turn over, administrators turn over, so we’re so fortunate to have an organization like Youth on Board that does provide some continuity and some institutional memory there.

Talk a little bit more about how you envision and hope that this app might help improve conditions. I am a student, I am going through the Boston Public Schools, I feel like perhaps I’ve been unfairly disciplined, I’ve been suspended from school or I’m facing a possible suspension from school because of something I said that I think I have a right to say — how would I take advantage of this app, and how do you envision it perhaps taking off and growing in the future?

Gunther: So, the app we just finally — it took, as all these things do, much longer to finally get off the ground than we expected — so it just actually became live in May, so this coming September will really be a time where we’re going to really see what students do with this and how much use it has, so we’re very excited about that. We had a launch that happened in June that the new superintendent got behind. We’ve had tweets, the local NPR station wrote a story about this, it got amazing coverage, so we are very excited about the amount of excitement that is within the district as well as nationally, that is more than we ever thought it would happen. And how we envision this working is, if something happens with a student, they can take their phone, at an appropriate time.

One of the rights that we passed, interestingly, was a cell phone policy, which gives students the rights to use their phones at particular times during the day, because one of the things that was happening is that students, teachers were taking students’ phones, they were reading text messages and emails in the middle of class, and that was totally inappropriate. That’s one of the things we got changed — so they could take their phone out at the appropriate time, and what we did is, we took the very formal, legalese code of conduct and simplified it into very much like a how-to, step-by-step process, so if you click on, there’s a section on the app that says, ‘What is the step-by-step process of suspension?’ You click on that link, and it brings you every single thing that should happen and why it should happen and why it shouldn’t happen. So it’s very user-friendly, and it says, ‘if this doesn’t happen, this is what you need to do.’ And it says, ‘I’ve been expelled, what do I need to do, which I think unfairly,’ and why should you be expelled, why shouldn’t you be expelled? And again, it’s very, very user-friendly. And then if these things happen, and you need support, you click on the resources guide, and then there’s a whole list of different kinds of resources you have access to. So we’re hoping that this is going to be sort of taking the mystery out of this process and putting it in everyone’s hands. We also imagine that this is not just for students, that teachers and administrators can use it because the code of conduct is a huge — I can’t remember how many pages, hundreds of pages long — that most people are not going to take the time to look at. So this is really a resource for everybody, it’s not just students, and we want to make sure that other people understand that they can use this so they are implementing things well and can help support students through this process as well if they find themselves there.

LoMonte: Just by way of wrap-up in a minute or two, you come to this work with a very interesting background in public health and community health and that was really where you started out. I wonder if you could just sort of address why you feel like student rights are an important component of a complete education, and what their value is — not just to the student, obviously, but to the whole school community.

Gunther: What we’ve heard — I mean, it’s human nature and we’ve heard over and over again from students — if students don’t feel invested in their school, or people don’t feel invested in their community, or feel they are respected in their community or school or home, then you’re not going to have a successful, supportive, collaborative place to live or to be in school. And so, having a school community and environment where students feel respected and heard and appreciated and understood is going to create better learning environments for them. So it’s sort of a no-brainer in some way, that of course students should be engaged in making these rules and of course they should be respected and of course they need to be knowledgeable about what the rules and regulations are in their school, and again, teachers and administrators need to be aware of this process as well and respect their students and their experiences. All of this in combination works towards creating an environment where students can be more successful in their lives, in their academics, in their social-emotional well-being, and in their relationships with their teachers. All of this kind of works together to create, hopefully, and we believe should be so, a better community and school to be in for everybody.

LoMonte: Well, Rachel Gunther with Youth on Board, thank you so much for joining us, and I want to encourage everybody to visit YouthOnBoard.org, check out the interesting work that the Boston Student Advisory Council is doing, and especially the Boston Student Rights App. We’ll be fascinated to see the progress and to see whether it’s something that might get some legs and be expanded even beyond your community. Thanks again for joining us and for the interesting and important work you’re doing in Boston. I want to encourage everybody also who has an interest in improving the state of student rights to check out the www.splc.org website, if you have a question about your legal rights as a student or an educator, you can reach us through the SPLC hotline, that’s 202-785-5450, or by email, splc@splc.org. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next time.