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Zero Tolerance for Teens

by Steve Chapman

Some parents would endorse strip-searches to keep kids in line
Education could be described as a process designed to instruct children on the folly of their elders. If so, kids in one school after another across America are learning a lot.

One of the common lessons is that normally rational adults sometimes lose all sense of proportion when dealing with adolescents. Teenagers then end up victimized by policies that are either excessively punitive or overly protective -- neither of which teaches respect for the rights of others or prepares kids for the responsibilities of adulthood.

In 1995, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of forcing school athletes to provide urine samples for drug tests. Since then, many schools have instituted programs aimed at catching kids using marijuana, cocaine and the like. But Hoover High School, near Birmingham, Ala., may be the first to expand the testing to nicotine. Anyone who refuses will not be allowed to play interscholastic sports, and anyone who tests positive will be suspended from the team.

This represents the convergence of two unhealthy trends: treating our children like prison inmates and getting hysterical about tobacco. A recent survey found that teenagers who take part in team sports are less likely than their peers to smoke or use drugs. But at Hoover, innocence is no protection.

Tobacco use by high school kids was once tolerated to the point that schools had student smoking areas. Now, smoking on campuses is generally banned, and the purchase of cigarettes by anyone under 19 is illegal in Alabama. Hoover officials, however, are not content with prohibitions. They insist on putting teenagers under unblinking surveillance to punish any deviation from the straight and narrow.

Ron Swann, athletic director for the Hoover city schools, says he hasn't heard a single objection from parents or students. But the willingness of most people to tamely submit to an invasion of privacy under duress doesn't make it any less invasive. Some parents would endorse strip-searches to keep kids in line.

That may be next. In Michigan's Whitmore Lake School District, school employees reportedly forced 20 male and female students to disrobe in an effort to find money stolen from a girl's backpack in a locker room. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has filed a lawsuit accusing the school of violating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, an obscure provision that -- if you can believe this -- forbids the government from conducting "unreasonable searches and seizures."

What's wrong with using strip-searches to catch a thief? "It was humiliating and degrading to be forced to pull down my pants in front of teachers," protested one of the girls. "I did nothing wrong, and there was no reason to treat me like a criminal."

Did nothing wrong? No reason to treat her like a criminal? Somehow she has failed to grasp that all high school kids are supposed to be treated like criminals -- or, to be honest, worse than criminals.

The police, keep in mind, can't come into your house and search you unless they have reason to think you've committed a crime. But school officials assume the power to conduct searches of a student's locker, backpack, clothing and bodily excretions, even if she has been a model of good behavior. The humiliation of being forced to drop your pants in the presence of teachers is getting to be one of the routine indignities of high school, like cafeteria food and acne.

Some schools have found ways to make it less routine. In Easton, Md., 18 high school students were pulled out of class so their urine could be tested for drugs before an audience of students and parents. One boy, whose test was misread as incriminating, was suspended and hustled off the school grounds by security guards. He was later exonerated, though without quite so much fanfare.

In some places, officials are vigilant about behavior that doesn't even violate the law. At a junior high in Euless, Texas, two eighth-grade girls, best friends, were recently punished for hugging in the hallway. The principal said that was intolerable because it might have been a "sexual encounter." Besides, he insists, "in junior high, they just don't need to put their hands on each other, because they can get into trouble."

The school code of conduct doesn't mention hugs, but there is a rule against "exhibiting inappropriate familiarity" -- which the district says also includes pinching, shoving and kicking. Now, there's a model of consistency: School officials understand that if you're going to ban violent physical contact, you have to ban friendly physical contact as well.

Some adolescents may wonder if it's really necessary to subject their behavior to such pervasive regulation. But someday, they'll understand that measures like these are essential so they can become productive adults in an orderly society. Like Iran.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor October 2, 2000 (

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