The ACLU of Pennsylvania has just published a new edition of Know Your Rights: A Handbook on the Rights of Public School Students in Pennsylvania. The guide covers a board range of issues faced by public and charter school students: First Amendment rights, privacy, use of social media, student searches, dealing with police, the right to be treated fairly, and the right to have access to sexual health information. Information is presented in a convenient Q&A format with lots of tips and resources. Previous editions of the handbook have been widely used by parents and educators, as well as by students. We asked a parent advocate and a high school teacher to tell us how they have used the handbook in their local work in Philadelphia.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Robin Roberts tells me on a lunch hour phone call she’s squeezed in between a meeting and picking up her children from school. Roberts, the parent of three kids in Philadelphia Public Schools, is talking about the misinformation she says parents with school-aged children receive about school policies and expectations.
Roberts is not only a mother; she is also an advocate with Parents United for Public Education, a parent-led, grassroots organization focused on creating an “equal, stable, and nurturing environment” for all Philadelphia public and charter students. She describes the handbook as an “instrumental” part of the solution to educating families. It is the handbook’s expansiveness – that it covers such a broad range of student issues – that makes it so useful to students and parents.
Roberts says that the handbook provides information in quick, understandable language that is realistic considering the demanding lives of parents. She added that school codes can be overly complex, meaning parents may not always be able to find information about what their children can and cannot do. “It really explains to parents their responsibilities and the responsibilities of the school,” Roberts says of the handbook.
But the handbook is not just for parents. Later that day, I met with Dan Symonds after he wrapped up his day teaching African American History and Social Studies at Science Leadership Academy. Symonds explains that the handbook is a “connection” for his students between their personal experiences and the experiences of others. It provides them insight on broader, complex issues like freedom of speech and press through the lens of what they can and cannot say in a school newspaper. It is invaluable because it meets them on their critical thinking level in a way that school codes and state legislation do not.
Symonds utilizes the handbook during lessons, while infusing his own personal teaching style. “Everything I teach should motivate,” he remarks. That explains why he uses the handbook in the classroom. It is not only relevant to American history. When an educator can point to a situation in which a student with disabilities rights where not honored by a school, it prompts students to care more deeply about issues that may not personally affect them.
Contrary to what some people might believe, students are interested in these issues. Symonds describes his 7th graders as being most interested in information about dress code and personal expression through clothing, hair styles, and body piercings. He goes on to explain that his 10th grade classes are more interested in the section about their rights to express religious and political views in school. Either way, the information in the handbook certainly is not wasted on students.
From the rights of English Language Learners to the legality of school searches, our students’ rights handbook provides parents, advocates, and students the knowledge to protect their rights. The commentary provided by Robin and Dan says as much.
Ashley Arnold is a graduate student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a policy intern at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.