John Dryden: Teacher Faces Disciplinary Hearings For Advising Students Of Constitutional Rights


According to Chicago's Daily Herald, a high school teacher in Batavia, Illinois, may face disciplinary action from the Batavia High School board after advising students of their constitutional rights before they took a survey last month. John Dryden, a social studies teacher, told his students in April that they had a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves by answering questions in a survey, which had the names of students on it, that concerned student drug and alcohol use. According to letter written by Dryden, he will today face an executive session of the Batavia School District Board of Education in order to defend himself from a charge of "unprofessional conduct."

Exactly how his conduct was "unprofessional" is not clear, given that all he was doing was his job: educating students, something for which he should be commended rather than disciplined.

According to school officials, the survey, which Batavia carried out for the first time this year, was designed to figure out which students might need help with drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, as well as emotional issues. The results of the survey are then reviewed by school officials, including social workers, counselors, and psychologists. Superintendent Jack Barshinger says that support for carrying out the survey had been growing amongst teachers following a number of student suicides over recent years. Staff said that they were often not aware that students were in such distress, a concern which seems like a perfectly reasonable and understandable reason for undertaking the survey.

Dryden says that he first learned about the contents of the survey just 10 minutes before class, and was concerned about the potential for students to incriminate themselves given that their names were on them, unlike with previous surveys. He says that he "made a judgment call" to tell students about their rights, but that if the surveys had been handed out a day or two before he would have taken his concerns to school officials instead. While parents were earlier told via email that their children could choose to take part in the survey, they were not told of its contents or that their children's names would be on it. And according to the Daily Herald, the script read to students before the survey took place did not state whether it was mandatory or optional.

Past and present students and community members have rallied in support of Dryden, who faces having a "letter of remedy" placed in his employment file. Dryden describes that as a "rather serious public sanction," and one which apparently also comes with a fine according to former student Joe Bertalmio, one of Dryden's leading supporters. An online petition urging the board not to endorse the disciplinary action against Dryden has collected over 4,000 signatures and argues that:

"It is Mr. Dryden's task as an educator to impart his students with the knowledge and ability to make informed choices, even if these lead to conscientious objection. For the administration of Batavia High School to pursue disciplinary action against a dedicated educator, whose instruction is solely student centered is, in our opinion, an extreme lapse of professional competence."

The petition also described Dryden as an "uncharacteristically engaging educator." In a letter to his supporters posted on Facebook, Dryden said that many parents expressed their alarm at the lack of communication from the school regarding the survey and goes on to say:

"My students have thanked me for looking out for their interests and constitutional rights. Many of my colleagues have expressed their support of my decision to remind my students of their Fifth Amendment right. I have been stopped dozens of times by parents and members of our community thanking me for informing our kids. Our community does not understand any more than I do why it is necessary to discipline me for this exercise in civil right."

Although the Huffington Post reports that school officials will not confirm or deny whether a hearing is taking place tonight, according to both Dryden and Bertalmio it is taking place tonight at 7 p.m. Supporters have been writing letters to the board and are planning to speak at the meeting.

While the stated concerns given by the superintendent behind the desire for the survey are understandable, it appears to have been poorly handled, with a lack of communication between officials, staff, parents, and students, and not enough time given to consider its contents and format. Rather than seeking to discipline Dryden for educating the students about their constitutional rights, the board should instead be looking at the survey itself and its handling by school officials. Teaching students their constitutional rights is important, for example, I also have a friend who is a high school teacher in Queens, New York who educates her students about their rights when it comes to the NYPD's stop and frisk policy, and should be encouraged by schools.