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Teacher Gets Schooled Over 5th Amendment Warning

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 04, 2013 8:36 AM

An Illinois high school teacher's self-incrimination warning to his students is getting a warning of his own. Batavia High School teacher John Dryden might face disciplinary action for reminding students that there is a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Daily Herald reports. He gave the quick constitutional reminder before passing out a school survey with questions about alcohol and drug use.

Since Dryden is a public school teacher, the school may be violating the First Amendment for disciplining a public employee for speech on a matter of public concern.

To determine whether a First Amendment violation occurred, a court would weigh the public school teacher's interest in commenting upon a matter of public concern against the school's interest in promoting an efficient workplace of public service.

The School's Interest

In response to several student suicides in recent years, school staff members designed the survey as a social and emotional health "screener," the school district's chief academic officer, Brad Newkirk, told the Herald. The results would be viewed by school counselors and psychologists for possible intervention.

Dryden is being disciplined for allegedly mischaracterizing the efforts of the staff by sending a message to the students that the adults aren't trying to help, but that they're trying to get students to incriminate themselves.

The Teacher's Interest -- The Matter of Public Concern

The survey forms asked questions about illegal behavior and, most problematic, included the students' names on them. Even if the people who designed the survey had other purposes for the survey, self-incrimination was the likely result if students answered candidly about breaking the law by drinking or using illegal drugs.

When the forms aren't confidential or anonymous, your answers on a school survey about personal alcohol or illegal drug use can be incriminating admissible evidence. There was no formal guarantee, after all, that their answers wouldn't be turned over to law enforcement and used against them.

However, if push came to shove, since Dryden didn't speak to school officials beforehand, created staff disharmony, and threw a wrench into the school's suicide prevention tool, after balancing all the factors, a court may well side with the school in taking disciplinary action.

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