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School's anti-hemp policy draws fire from civil libertarians

Columbia's Spring Valley High School issued a policy in September banning students from wearing jewelry made from hemp to school. It is just the latest in odd behavior on the part of school officials, who in recent memory cancelled a concert by the Indigo Girls after they realized the musicians are gay, and who have expelled kids for bringing water pistols to school and butter knives to the lunchroom.

This latest prohibition on the wearing of hemp prompted SC-ACLU Executive Director Steve Bates to appear before the school board on Oct. 14. What follows are excerpts from what he had to say.

*The past year has given rise to more complaints from students and their parents about school policies than in the combined 14 years of my experience with the ACLU. As we pursue these complaints, we usually are met with one of two responses: "It is the school's policy, not the district's," or, "The law gives us no choice."

It is my perception that schools are becoming more authoritarian, and my opinion that school boards across the state are allowing it to happen.

Democratic schools value students as individuals. Their focus is on helping students learn rather than conform.

Democratic schools teach students how to think, not what to think.

Steve Bates

Democratic schools cultivate respect for ideas and respect the right of each student to express differing opinions. Students not only are made welcome, but allowed a meaningful role in decisions that affect them.

Democratic schools teach students how to think, not what to think. They turn student mistakes into learning opportunities instead of cause for detention, suspension and expulsion.

Schools play a vital role in teaching the values of a democratic society: limited government power, guaranteed rights, respect for the rights and property of others, the responsibility to participate in the decision-making process.

Democratic schools not only teach civics in the classroom, but practice it in the hallway. Young citizens are shown democratic values in action by the way they are treated by teachers and administrators.

Increasingly, our young citizens experience something far different in the halls. They are taught that government has authority to impose arbitrary rules and censor lawful expression, and to search students and their belongings without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion. They are taught to obey authority and that dissent will either be ignored or punished.

I have been listening to a special series on NPR about the Nuremberg trials. I am reminded that the exercise of illegitimate authority is not a democratic value. Teaching blind obedience to that authority is not an educational virtue.

Administrators too must follow rules. Among them are the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. These rules say that school administrators have no authority to substitute their judgment in matters that are properly within the sphere of students and their parents. In democratic schools, administrators know and respect the difference.

Since I am addressing authoritarian schools in general, I want to mention "zero tolerance" policies. They are a prescription for injustice. Zero tolerance is scapegoating, a classic form of blaming the victim, as though students are the cause of SAT scores being low. It insinuates that failure to learn is the result of a failure to follow rules. Its premise is that if rules become more harsh, scores will somehow go up.

Zero tolerance reveres generals more than philosophers. What students wear to school becomes more important than their being in school.

Elected officials might delegate authority, but they cannot abdicate responsibility. The Spring Valley hemp rule is not only foolish, but in our view an unconstitutional abridgment of fundamental rights.

The board moved to discuss the issue at its Oct. 27 meeting.

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