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Beating Up on Students

Julia C. Lipman

When I was a senior in high school, my government class was selected to draft a bill and present it at the state senate in Springfield. I’d always thought about the kind of laws I would make if I held public office, and I couldn’t believe I’d get to start as a sixteen-year-old. There seemed to be so many opportunities for our class. We could abolish the death penalty in Illinois or enact a state Equal Rights Amendment. Or, most relevantly, we could strengthen civil liberties protections for public school students.

The state representatives who visited our class to promote the program also had student rights in mind. They started out by passing out literature describing Illinois’ new “Use It and Loose [sic] It” law, which took away the driver’s license of anyone under 21 found driving with a blood alcohol content above 0.00. This law, which made it illegal for a twenty-year-old who’d had one drink to take over at the wheel for a drunk friend, was to be the model for the bill that our class would draft.

No, these legislators weren’t thinking about capital punishment or the ERA. They had a very specific agenda in mind: using teenagers to pass legislation that would crack down on teenagers. All of the bills they suggested to us had one common thread: restricted rights or tougher penalties for minors. My classmates were happy to sell out their peers, finally deciding on a bill that would strengthen penalties for making fake IDs, which would eventually pass easily. It was just like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, except Jimmy Stewart’s scout leader turned politician ends up working with the crooked senator on a bill to clear-cut Boy Scout camps, instead of meeting the cute secretary and contemplating the meaning of democracy.

There’s really no need for politicians to use fresh-faced high school government students to sell legislation that cracks down on teenagers. It sells itself. In fact, Elizabeth Dole is hoping that it will sell her faltering presidential campaign. Dole recently called for schools to institute locker and backpack searches as a way to reduce crime. Taking a cue from the Illinois state reps, she announced her proposal in front of an audience of high school honor students in Melrose, Massachusetts.

Why do politicians think that announcing tough-on-teenagers measures in front of an audience of teenagers is a good strategy? After all, you don’t see them promising senior citizen groups that they’ll get reckless elderly drivers off the road, or suburbanites that they’re going to start imposing tougher environmental standards on SUVs. True, teenagers don’t vote or take polls, so offending them isn’t going to affect the candidate’s standing. But there’s more to it than that. By talking to teenagers, Dole makes it clear that she doesn’t see them as a monolithic group. There are good teenagers (the ones she’s talking to, presumably) and bad ones (the ones these laws are meant for). The core assumption is that good teenagers won’t question restrictions on their rights, and bad ones won’t question them intelligently.

There are always exceptions -- remember how shocked Bush the elder was when a young girl interrogated him about capital punishment on the campaign trail? But if you have nothing to hide, what’s the problem with opening your backpack for the occasional search, especially since Mrs. Dole told you that it’s for “the lives and bright futures of all students?” Furthermore, your parents (who will, according to Dole’s plan, be responsible for giving schools permission to conduct these searches) will surely be impressed with Dole’s tough but caring approach to the teenagers of America.

Gore is getting in on the act too. His education plan involves “codes of discipline and required meetings on the first day for parents, teachers, and their students to sign this code.” Is it a national code, or will there be one for every school district? What happens to students who refuse to sign the code? What about parents or teachers who refuse to sign it? Gore doesn’t tell us much about the details, but it’s safe to say that writing such a code would be a field of political land mines.

It’s not a great time to be a student. The American Civil Liberties Union reported a major upswing in the number of calls it received about student rights violations in the months after the Columbine shootings. And now that we’re heading into an election year, we’ll see more of grandstanding politicians leading the assault on student rights. Of course, many of their ideas, like Clinton’s school uniform proposal, will have a shelf life no longer than that of the campaign. And as for the ones that succeed, like my class’s fake-ID bill? There are always ways of getting around these things. In fact, most of my classmates left for college in Iowa or Indiana six months later.