Teacher Tells Students of Their Rights, Now He Faces Disciplinary Action

As a high school English teacher, I find teachable moments everywhere. “Teachable moments” is the term educators use to refer to those wonderful times when the curriculum lines up with real life, and the teachers get a chance to show students exactly why these concepts are important.

My biggest teachable moment this school year came well after we had talked about banned books when Chicago Public Schools banned “Persepolis” and I was able to get copies of the book and teach it to them. Often, teachable moments are ones where the teacher has to take a risk or face something controversial in order to show students right from wrong. I, for example, had no idea how my administration would react to me teaching a controversial book like “Persepolis.” Luckily for me, they were all for it. Other teachers are not so lucky.

John Dryden wasn’t so lucky. Dryden is a history teacher at Batavia High School in Illinois, not too far from where I teach. He was instructed by his administration to have his students take a survey about their drug and alcohol use following a string of recent teen suicides in the area. The survey was meant to screen students to identify the ones who might be at risk and, as such, the survey had the students’ names on it. Dryden noticed the survey was not anonymous and, since it was asking students to admit to illegal activity, he informed his students of their right not to incriminate themselves guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. He not only used this as a teachable moment to show students a practical application of his history lessons, but he also informed them of a right they may not have otherwise known about. He is now facing disciplinary action for this.

School board president, Cathy Dremel, says the disciplinary action is because Dryden “mischaracterized” the administrators’ intentions about the survey. It was not intended to incriminate students; rather, it was to find which students were in need of help that the school could provide. It was not, according to the district, a way to sneakily find out who was up to something illegal, and Dryden’s informing students of their rights gave it that tone.

However, Dryden is right. As citizens of this country, his students do have a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves, and taking a survey that was clearly not anonymous might have led to other problems for them down the line. The students were not informed of those rights by the district before taking the survey, so Dryden saw fit to inform them on his own. This was not breaking the law or school rules in any way, as far as I can see. It was a survey, not a mandatory assignment, so students shouldn’t have had to participate if they didn’t want to or felt uncomfortable, and Dryden was simply giving them that option.

This situation also raises the question: what other rights are we not informing our students of? Students do, in fact, have rights in public schools, but their rights are severely limited due to the public nature of their environment. The safety of the majority of the students is always the priority, so if there is a reasonable suspicion on the part of disciplinarians, students’ backpacks, lockers, etc. can be searched, athletes can be drug tested, and school visitors can be asked to go through a metal detector. If you are interested in students’ rights, a comprehensive rundown can be found from the ACLU of Utah.

The bottom line is that students and teachers should not have their rights violated. Even though they work in a public setting, they are entitled to their rights as citizens, and being aware of those rights is the first step to protect them.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 months ago

thanks for the article.

J. J.
J. J.3 years ago

Most surveys usually give the option of anonymity. Mr. Dryden was right to have been suspicious.

Berny p.
Berny p.3 years ago


Ravenna C.
Ravenna C.3 years ago

Imagine that...A teacher, educating young minds about the Constitution of the United States of America. Then he had the audacity to explain to the students what it meant to them personally to be guaranteed Constitutional Rights as American Citizens!

Unfortunately for him and those impressionable minds the US Constitution is in direct conflict with the agenda of the United Corporations of America. They are no longer citizens with rights. They are consumers to be manipulated and controlled by propaganda and greed.

True teachers like Mr. Dryden are what Corporate controlled government fears the most. Educators like him might start those young minds to thinking crazy thoughts about Personal Liberty. Hmmm...

paul m.
paul m.3 years ago


Sonali Ghosh
Sonali G.3 years ago

He stood up for what he believes in and what is a right as well. Good for him. I have been thinking for some time that this sort of thing should really be addressed but perhaps it is high time that a mental health/drugs and alcohol worker be alocated to every high school now. I found here in the UK when I did my teacher training, I was spending far too much time trying to control a classroom of children with social and emotional/behavioural problems and that drugs were often involved. You cannot educate a class of children if you are too busy dealing with all of the other crap that is going on in their lives.

Jenevieve P.
Past Member 3 years ago

OOps! I got cut off! Per my last line of my post, If Mr. Dryden should end up needing Legal Counsel, I'm sure he cannot afford a retainer fee and the minimum $250 per hour consultation fee.

If anything, the school adminstration might have a powerhouse lawyer, but they haven't got a chance in hell of winning over Mr. Dryden! More than likely, if the case was to go to court, the case would either be thrown out, or the school could be cited or loose its credentialing, or the administrator, who I'm sure is also a licensed teacher, would get their license suspended or revoked! or,.. just a slap on the wrist for stupidity!

Jenevieve P.
Past Member 3 years ago

Gee, Through out the decades, I'm surprised that our Constitution and Amendments have not been burned up and abolished! What is the deal with our rights being challenged? It sounds to me like a means for CONTROL AND GREED! Control within the beauraucratic sytems that contributes to the growing per capita of lawyers!

I say, Good for you Mr. Dryden! He did the right thing being a stand upon teaching his students to protect themselves. He taught them to be self empowered!

Accordingly, the School Administration is the one at fault for violating the students rights! The teacgher did nothing wrong. By law, the SCHOOL has to inform the students of the survey, and BY LAW the Students have the right to decline taking the survery, as mental health issues is a confidential HIPPA Act. Seeking information deceptively and utilizing it to screen students is a HIPPA AND A HIPRA VIOLATION!

I'm sure you don't have $250 to pay alawyer his hourly fee.

Kay M.
.3 years ago

here we go again 1/2 of the comment cut off. oh well as I was saying this is a hell of a way to run a country when the president has to get things done with his hands tied behind his back by the repulsive republicans in the congress. But as you see in the news reports every day and on CNBC stock market and home sales are going great , stock market is higher now and the defecit is cut in half since Obama took office, so no matter how much the repulsive teabagger republicans try to do to stop the recovery it is still happening, not as fast as he would like, but that again is the reptiles fault. Just think if they did work, or they just got out of the way of progress, how much further along the recovery could be. We are going to get there by showing up at the polls in 2014 and voting those scum bags out of office and put in people who really want to work for the the betterment of America and its citizens. That is Us......period.

Kay M.
.3 years ago

Thank you Ashley for the article. I have read the comments from the members, everyone has a good point. When we can we should extend rights to the individual student, if he or she is not taking the rights of others away. Tell the student the survey is for the purpose of offering help to those who want it, Put your name if you want, if not make it anonymous. As far as rights of safety in school the rights of the majority not to be harmed, out way the rights of one student to hurt or kill another student or teacher. So apply rights according to the situation is the only sane thing to do. We live in a civilized society that rerquires laws and rules in order to maintain peace . When this is not balanced that is when we get into trouble, fights, war, murder, crimes. etc. We need order. look at what is happening right now in the congress. The rights of a few mean spirited repulsive teabagers to stand up and deny any work get done in congress because they want the President to fail and the economy to crash. is being allowed even though everyone knows what they are doing is wrong. But because they signed their souls away to the puppet master Grover Norquist, they can not conduct any business in congress ever , or they will not be put up for re-election. nor will they be given a job at a lobby firm in washington. d.c. after they get out of office. ( what a hell of a way to run a country, to have the hands of the president tied behind his back like this.