Originally created 08/31/99

Student rights

Elaine Maldonado may not wear exactly what she wants to Evans High School, but that doesn't mean her rights are forfeited when she passes through its doors.

However, with the increased focus on dress codes and security in high schools, it's normal for her to wonder if the rules are just a way to suppress expression.

"They just want to control us. High school is supposed to be fun. I'd like to sit down and think about what I'm learning, not what I'm supposed to be wearing," said Elaine, a 16-year-old junior.

But school boards it's legal for school boards to dictate what students can and cannot wear, said Pete Fletcher, attorney for the Richmond County Board of Education.

Even so, students' constitutional rights don't change when they go to school -- they just get weighed against what's good for everybody involved.

"A student's individual rights have to be balanced against a school district's ability to efficiently, safely operate schools," Mr. Fletcher said.

Stricter dress codes and more security in local schools are a reaction to incidents like the April shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., as well as an apparent lack of respect for teachers and education shown by students, according to Mr. Fletcher.

Although some area students said they were scared after Columbine and appreciated extra security measures, including metal detectors and patrol officers, they disagree that stricter dress codes curb school violence.

"Just because I have my shirt tucked in doesn't mean I can't find a way to sneak something in," said Dimitrius Peggins, 16, a junior at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet High School.

In the future, Dimitrius and Elaine said they'd like the chance to discuss safety and dress codes with administrators before they are enacted.

"I disagree with the new dress codes, but I'm not going to argue about it," Dimitrius said. "It just popped out of nowhere. They could've gradually brought it on and given us some slack. It's a little late to change anything now."

He may not think he'll change anything, but Dimitrius still has the right to express his feelings and opinion, according to Mr. Fletcher.

Under the law, students can express their feelings and opinions -- as long as it's done at the appropriate time and place. Students also can express their religious beliefs, again in the appropriate place and time. The "appropriate place and time" basically means not during class or other school events.

Margaret Weston covers teen issues for The Augusta Chronicle.She can be reached at (706) 823-3340 or mweston@augustachronicle.com.


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