With more police presence on school campuses, FL students need to know their rights

By: - September 18, 2020 7:00 am

Students and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with parents and other Parkland residents demonstrate together in the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018. Credit: rmackman via Wikimedia Commons

A pupil is approached by a police officer at school, and the officer asks to search the student’s bag. Can the student refuse to consent to the search?

Is a police officer required to call a pupil’s parent before the student is questioned? When does school discipline become an infringement of students’ rights?

With a larger presence of police officers on public school campuses in Florida and the rising number of student arrests, students may not be educated on their rights or be prepared to exercise them in the presence of law enforcement, civil rights experts say.

A recent ACLU report focuses on the impacts of increased police presence on school campuses following the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the legislation that followed: It mandates a law enforcement officer, armed staff, or armed private security be present at every public school campus.

The study suggests that the number of student arrests has increased since the legislation passed, without necessarily making campuses safer. It also says that students are more likely to interact with a police officer on school campuses than a school nurse.

New educational resources for students strive to ensure that students are properly informed and prepared to exercise their rights on school campuses and when interacting with law enforcement.

“We, for years, have been trying to reduce recent arrests. And of course, with new policy changes — an increase in school policing — we’re seeing the trends reverse and student arrests are going up,” said Michelle Morton, research coordinator and policy counsel at The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a conversation with the Phoenix.

“And so, we really want to combat that. And part of the conversation is making sure that kids understand the law, as it affects them.”

Student arrests are increasing — with some students as young as 5-years-old getting detained for behavior infractions.

Earlier in the year, the ACLU of Florida began developing a new handbook to show Florida students how they can protect their rights and exercise them. The document is called the “We Have Rights Student Handbook.”

The handbook provides general guidelines for what rights students have, how to file a complaint if they feel their rights have been violated, and how to further protect their rights through organizing and protests.

“Some of this is how to interact with police and making sure you’re protecting your rights — because kids just don’t know, and it’s very intimidating when you’re dealing with law enforcement,” Morton said.

She continues: “And just making sure they’re aware of where the lines are between things that are clearly school discipline and things that could subject them to criminal sanctions.”

Morton says that the handbook is an update to previous informational materials created for students to include information on how to protest on campus and safely film police.

The handbook provides accessible information on how they can use their rights — such as the right to refuse search, and the right to an attorney. The handbook makes it very clear that, regardless of being LGBTQ or immigration status, students have rights and need to know how to exercise them.

Coincidentally, a playing-card game intending to inform students of their rights was in development in Orlando around the same time.

Playground City, an Orlando non-profit organization that designs curriculum to help make education more fun for students, began developing Rights! — an anime-styled card game that helps inform kids of their rights and how to use them — independently of the ACLU handbook.

“We just wanted to get the information, represent it in a way that resonated with the youth, and would become a tool for them to use.” said Jasmyne Reese, executive director of Playground City.

She added: “I, as an African American, felt it was important that Playground City acknowledge and played a part in the current climate and conversation about the mistreatment of minorities, in general, and with law enforcement.”

When the two organizations learned of the other’s projects, they came together to collaborate a student rights educational resource package — containing the “We Have Rights Student Handbook,” “Rights!” the card game, and supplementary curriculum that teachers and community organization leaders can employ to further the discussion with their students.

Playground City partnered with Paul C. Perkins Bar Association, an Orlando organization committed to furthering African Americans in the legal field, to help ensure that the information provided on the playing cards correctly informed students of their rights and the law.

These resources are intended to be used in school classrooms and small community organizations, according to ACLU of Florida’s Michelle Morton. The handbook can be downloaded off of the ACLU of Florida’s website along with supplemental curriculum, and the card game available for download on the Playground City website.

“Students have rights and those rights do not stop at the schoolhouse gate,” Morton said in a press release about the new educational materials.

“Yet, too often students are often subjected to unreasonable searches, restrictions on their First Amendment rights, discrimination, and harassment. With the increasing role of police officers in schools, students also need to understand how to navigate interactions with police. It’s critical that young people understand they have rights and learn how to exercise those rights.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.