Censored Editorial: Students, not suspects

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Editor’s Note: This editorial comes from the Texas High School Tiger Times. It was censored in its entirety by the school administration, and the students are currently fighting to have it re-published. You can read more about their efforts here. To aid the students efforts and make sure the school fails in its attempt to suppress this editorial, the Student Press Law Center is publishing it in full.

If you’ve been censored, contact SPLC’s Legal Hotline for help. We’re here for you.

Widespread drug searches lead to ruined futures, distrust between administrators and students 

“All students will take ownership in their personal learning in a trusting, supportive and mutually respectful environment.”

It’s clear to me that the above-mentioned “objective” listed in the TISD Mission Statement page is a principle that has fallen on deaf ears here at Texas High School. For how can students feel trusted, respected and supported by an administration that has gleefully increased spending by thousands in order to bring forth a campus-wide drug war that has taken students in the most difficult times of their lives out of the learning environment, and into courtrooms? All the while, conducting these searches within a legal gray area, with hopes that no one would take the time to read up on the legislation. 

For the students of our school, guilty or not, the recent occurrences of police and trained drug dogs making their way through our halls has facilitated an environment of fear and distrust. Meanwhile, the school praises the recent contracting of their “drug dog” and celebrates the removal of many students on non-violent charges of drug possession, almost as a “cleansing” of the school. 

Should a student develop a habit of using illegal substances, there are a number of questions school staff ought to ask before “how can we catch them?” Consider the home life of these individuals, the pressures that brought them to this unhealthy coping mechanism and most especially the ways staff may be able to steer these students on the right path. The counseling center is surely a quicker path back to healthy learning than prosecution and punishment. 

Consider, this year TISD will spend an estimated $1,279,639 on Guidance and Counseling according to their Fiscal Year Budget 2021-2022, available online. How many students could avoid stains on their records, that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, should there be a counseling stage between apprehension of minor drugs instead of a direct path to legal action?

Administrators, so much depends on the acceptance of a common fact: those using minor drugs in school aren’t a danger to the students you are supposed to protect, they are exactly who require your protection the most. The assumption that those abusing substances like marijuana and nicotine are beyond help and must be turned over to the authorities is a mentality that goes hand in hand with the mass incarceration crisis. These students’ status as minors is fading quickly, making this the time in their lives a last chance for intervention before they enter a substantially less friendly world. 

This isn’t to say that drugs aren’t bad; they inherently are, and I won’t waste my time attempting to convince anyone else otherwise. However, there’s an important distinction to be made between the crimes students are committing and the students themselves. 

Let me introduce you to Tom, (a pseudonym for an upperclassman whose story many students are familiar with) who was one of many who had their vehicles searched on Thursday, March 31. In his car, searched after the drug dog alerted, school administrators found unspecified amounts of Schedule I drugs. The amounts were indicative of possession, not an intent to sell; it’s clear then that this individual is obviously distressed and has developed extremely dangerous habits in order to cope.

Nonetheless, the student was removed from school and has been since the incident. This student has missed days of education for substances done outside of the school environment. But this is nothing compared to the effects that are to come.

In an interview with Tom, he detailed the fear that surrounded his arrest on Tuesday, April 12. He knew it would happen, just not when. After 12 days in DAEP, the officers came. 

Now he waits for a trial, which will be held approximately 4 months from his arrest. Tom’s future plans were to attend Texarkana College, using the hours he built up in high school through the dual credit problem to get most of his basic courses out of the way, and eventually transfer to a larger university to finish a degree in computer science. 

Tom was fairly popular, and his detention is widely known across school. In a discussion among classmates on his recent detainment, his former teacher was surprised to have heard of his drug use, stating “he didn’t seem like that kind of kid at all.” This is exactly my point; drugs aren’t indicative of any one type of person at all, rather, they are a result of stressors of one’s environment. Anyone is susceptible. 

In this way, I believe the actions of administrators and their decision to pursue students in this way are conducive to their failure of Tom, who likely could have been approached and offered healthier ways to deal with the issues that have led him to drug use in the first place. If a student denies this help completely, and needs to be ‘scared straight’ (however statistically false and ignorant the method is), what would be the harm of attempting a more supportive solution first?

It’s exactly this mentality that I write against today, it’s not necessarily an argument against administrators protecting the safety of students, but against the objective of using whatever means possible to convict and remove as many students as possible for whatever drugs they are found with. 

Nicotine, a undoubtedly minor substance with an extreme potential for addiction, is targeted all the same as hard drugs, though it carries none of the related crimes like car accidents or overdoses. Consider marijuana as well, which the federal legalization of has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It seems our country is moving in a progressive direction, while administrators are chasing the opposite goal, ramping up the convictions of students caught using these substances. 

We are long past the ‘70s demonization of the “reefer,” and our school is caught in the past if they disagree. No one should advocate for widespread marijuana use among minors, but arguably the effects of targeting these students as criminals are worse for the students than the drug themselves. 

Furthermore, light reading of the common law surrounding searches of students at school will lead you to discovery of the famous case New Jersey v. T.L.O. which established the standard of reasonableness that ought to be followed by administrators when searching students. This case confirms a large part of the conduct of our principals here at Texas High, but there are instances where the school requires some well-deserved scrutiny. 

First is the unreasonable cost of the methods the school has chosen to single out their students. According to the ACLU, the average drug dog program costs anywhere between $12,000 and $36,000, and while TISD has not revealed the cost of these measures, we can safely predict their recent contracting of a drug dog will fall somewhere within this range. 

Second, there is a legal argument to be made against the possible violation of the aforementioned standard of reasonableness that administrators must follow before conducting a search. This standard is less than probable cause, which all police must adhere to, but has to be more than an unparticularized suspicion. 

Reasonable suspicion must be based on articulable facts “taken together with rational inferences from those facts”. What this essentially means for the school is that searches of places with a “reasonable suspicion of privacy” i.e. vehicles (yes, even if they are parked at school) must have specific facts to justify them.

So yes, administrators have the authority to use drug dogs to conduct searches at school. And yes, they can search your vehicle parked on school property with suspicion of illegal activity. However, the mass patrolling of drug dogs around student’s vehicles (legally considered a search) comes completely without the legal standard of reasonable suspicion that administrators are supposed to be able to apply. Essentially, unless they can give a factual reason your individual car is being sniffed, with an alert or not, their conduct isn’t protected by law. 

Generally, administrators of public schools are given significant leeway when it comes to protecting the campus they ought to. However, the mass persecution of those with even traces of drugs as common as nicotine is not the legal intention of the rulings that gave admin the leeway they enjoy. 

Yet, let us consider that somehow laws were changed, and your teachers and principals had absolutely no guidelines to follow in their initiatives combating drugs, that still wouldn’t ethically justify their actions.

As an individual, you have the right to hate drugs; you even have the right to hate the people who do them. However, as an administrator, your priority is on the protection and promotion of students; one’s personal, political or religious bias against substances cannot be allowed to subvert the original mission statement of the job.

I believe, along with many others, that the school’s recent campaign against drugs is the antithesis of the principles they ought to follow, should their goal truly be the one their mission statement of creating a “caring environment” with a “wide range of opportunities” claims. 

The opinions reflected in the article are my own, and not reflective of the Tiger Times as a whole.

Read more about how this editorial was censored, and the students’ efforts to fight back: