John Dryden: Teacher Under Fire For Informing Students Of Their Fifth Amendment Right

A survey asking questions about teen behavior outside of school, including drug and alcohol use, was administered in April to students at Batavia High School, located outside of Chicago. The purpose of the survey was to measure “how students meet the social-emotional learning standards” set by Illinois State. It appeared to be a straightforward way for the school district to monitor the mental state of students, given Chicago has the highest teen suicide rate in the nation. However, students were advised to invoke their constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment by John Dryden, a well-liked social studies teacher at the school.

Dryden’s action informing students of their rights was well intentioned, but his misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment is likely to cost him his job. It was announced this week that “Dryden faces having a ‘letter of remedy’ placed in his employment file,” which means that the school board has grounds for his dismissal, according to state law. Was he in the wrong?

While there is no expressed right to privacy in the Constitution, there are many rights that protect an individual’s liberties, and Dryden was correct that the Fifth Amendment protects against government action to compel individuals to incriminate themselves. But the issue is more complex, because the Amendment applies specifically in criminal cases, and the lines get blurred when institutions such as schools are involved.

As outlined in the First Amendment, and backed up by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students have constitutional protections afforded to them while in a public school environment, and students do not lose their free speech rights at the “schoolhouse gate.” Which if interpreted broadly means the students had the right to withhold pertinent information about themselves, with the exception if a criminal case were to be brought against them.  

According to the Supreme Court case New Jersey v T.L.O., “In carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions pursuant to such policies, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents,” which means that Dryden’s responsibility as a school official was to act in accordance with the school’s mission and enforce compliance with the survey.

Dryden encouraged students to withhold information from the school, so it can be interpreted that he promoted disruptive behavior and interfered in the interest of local authorities. Since it appears the school’s intention was merely to help students and give the information to counselors and psychologists, not to authorities, he was in a clear violation of the school’s authority. He is likely to be dismissed from the school, which is unfortunate because he seems to have made a positive impact in the community.

Perhaps the lesson here is that individuals who appear admirable by standing up for others should fully understand what they are putting themselves on the line for. In Dryden's case he could have spared himself his job by recognizing the survey's purpose was to help students, not harm them.