Lauren Rivera, Jason Orzell pen grand prize, school-wide winning essays in Bill of Rights Contest

Smiling student with long brown hair
Junior Lauren Rivera wrote the grand prize winning essay for the Bill of Rights contest hosted by the Hudson Valley Chapter of the NYCLU.

Goshen High School junior Lauren Rivera is the grand prize winner of the Hudson Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union Bill of Rights Essay Contest. In addition to Lauren receiving the grand prize, junior Jason Orzell won the best-in-school prize for Goshen High School.

The organization reviewed essays from schools across the Hudson Valley. The students entered the essay contest as part of Eric Harris’s AP Language and Composition class which focuses on the use of rhetoric in reading and writing. Students were required to draft an essay that involved analyzing the nuances of our first amendment rights when on school grounds. The contest required critical thinking, writing skills, and knowledge of civil liberties.

Smiling teenage student wearing a blue fleece jacket
Junior Jason Orzell’s essay took best-in-school as part of the Bill of Rights Contest hosted by the Hudson Valley Chapter of the NYCLU.

“While Jason and Lauren are brilliant young writers, they are even better people,” said Harris. We’re lucky to have them here in Goshen.”

“We look forward to the Bill of Rights contest every year,” said Lucia Hermo, Deputy Director for the Hudson Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Even with the pandemic and everything else going on this year, we received a large amount of submissions and were excited to read all of the different thoughts on the First Amendment in schools. We would like to extend our hearty congratulations to the winners, and thank all who took the time to participate in this contest.”

Read the winning essays

View Lauren Rivera’s grand prize winning essay

Technology is intertwined with education creating an uneasy relationship between privacy and security. Schools often attempt to create policy in an effort to tackle relevant issues. For instance, many public schools have stringent policies or guidelines when it comes to video recording on school grounds or in class. Yet,  there are a number of incidents where students have recorded altercations between classmates and/or faculty as proof that their welfare has been compromised. While many argue that unfiltered expression through recording devices will lead to a complete invasion of privacy, recording devices have helped to combat the bullying, harassment, and abuse that occurs in schools and, therefore, are not an infringement of our first amendment rights.

Too often, public institutions – and especially schools – are fixated on defending their individual policies instead of using common sense judgment when it comes to issues like recording and posting content online. For instance, in 2014, a Pennsylvania high school student was being bullied by classmates and took it upon himself to record his aggressors. Instead of questioning the students whose voices were recorded…school administrators threatened to charge the bullied student with felony wiretapping before eventually agreeing to reduce the charge to disorderly conduct (Text 10). The mother of the student being charged testified on his behalf stating the harassment included pushing, shoving,verbal abuse, and his tormentor trying to burn him with a cigarette lighter (Text 10). The student was found guilty of disorderly conduct. The school did not look into the harassment matter and did not defend the student being tormented.

Instead, the school focused on maintaining its own public image. This issue is not isolated to just one school. It happens frequently. Consider another example in North Carolina. A parent sent their child to school with a recording device because the child was upset by the treatment he received by his special education teacher. The footage recorded “4 hours worth of the school day, on which the teacher can be heard yelling ‘You want something to happen! But I’m tired! So, somebody might just get hurt and I just might go to jail!’… with other forms of verbal abuse (Text 7). Any action taken by the school, if any, is not publicly available, but the teacher was not dismissed as a result of the incident (Text 7). This is similar to Jacob Michael Matthew’s scenario, where the school immediately acted, suspending him. Ultimately, these institutions cared little about what was right or wrong, but instead fought to protect themselves.

Not only is it ethically and morally right for video recordings to be allowed but laws (state and federal) dictate it as well. The Bill of Rights are the first 10 Amendments that guarantee civil rights and liberties to all Americans. School policy should not trump state and federal laws in delegating the rights and liberties of students. The first amendment states that Americans have the right to “express ideas through speech and the press” (Text 1). Jacob’s school, Yardley High School, had no jurisdiction to impose on his first amendment rights. Jacob witnessed and recorded a fellow student in a physical and verbal altercation with faculty and a police officer. It was his right to post the video and make others aware of the situation occurring in his own high school. That is a public service. In most states, like New York, “there’s an implied right to place and use imaging devices in public places” (Text 6). Jacob’s school is a public school hence making it a public place. Jacob’s school was wrong to suspend him for recording in an area with an implied right to use video recording. Educational institutions, like Yardley High School, should not hold their policies at higher standards than state and federal laws and policies.

Due to the rapid advancement of technology in education, it is unfair of schools to punish students for violating vague and outdated video recording policies. A spokesman for the Sacramento City Unified District states that “school board policy broadly addresses use of electronic devices, including cell phones…There are some restrictions to students…But it doesn’t specifically define what appropriate use is or isn’t”(Text 11). It is illogical to punish students for violating archaic and generic technology guidelines which school administrators are unable to clearly articulate. According to the Council of School Attorneys for the Nation School Boards Association there is “a significant fluctuation in cell phone rules and enforcement of existing rules and policies from building to building, classroom to classroom”(Text 7). With rules fluctuating due to the fast paced technological evolution, how can administrations penalize students for video recording when they are unsure of the specific guidelines themselves? Schools have vague video recording policies that are constantly changing making accountability a moving target.  Thus, administrations can’t hold students accountable for violating capricious and wavering policies with harsh punishment (like suspension in Jacob’s situation).

While there is validity in the argument that video recording devices in classrooms are an uncontrollable threat to privacy, we can not go blind to the higher level of security and protection it has allocated to students. Due to video recordings, students who are being bullied and harassed have a new level of protection. The first amendment rights of these students grants their right for video recording and school policy should never trump these liberties. School administrations should not be able to discipline students for infringing video recording policies that are everchanging and vague. Even though Jacob recorded faculty and other students without their consent; by posting the video on the internet he brought to light a larger issue (that schools are not being maintained as comfortable and safe places for students to learn). If we have to relinquish a meager amount of our privacy to keep the young minds of this country safe from emotional and physical abuse, it is without a doubt worth it.

View Jason Orzell’s best-in-school winning essay

Today’s industrial revolution has sparked a massive increase in camera access. Everyone with a smartphone can click three buttons and start a video at any time or anywhere. This is a double edged sword. Taking a quick photo of the notes on the board as a student is very beneficial, and/or recording a science experiment in class can help you parlay your data into a lab later. Yet there has been a massive spike in privacy intrusion based issues, largely based on this increased amount of cameras everywhere you go. In order to combat this, locations, specifically schools in this case, implement rules to hinder privacy invasion. Unfortunately, these rules tend to be too general, and don’t apply to all situations. Take Jacob for example. He recorded and posted a video taken in class in order to show the unfair treatment of a fellow student during class. While the school rules clearly state that students are not allowed to record in class video and then after post to an online platform, Jacob had every right to post this video in order to show the unacceptable behavior of the officer while handling the student, and thus forth should be awarded, not punished, for his actions.

It is important to keep in mind that school policy is still very important. Without individual school policies regarding recording, students and faculty alike could be put into undesired situations. Online pictures and videos can be posted where “…students can write hurtful comments. Additionally, through the use of certain phone apps, such as Snapchat, students can edit videos or pictures by altering the appearance of the person or making inappropriate drawings on the image” (text 9). This exact situation applies to teachers as well. Cyber bullying is shown statistically increase rates of depression and suicide. According to Muchele Hamm, a researcher in pediatrics at the University of Alberta, stated “There were consistent associations between exposure to cyberbullying and increased likelihood of depression” (Text 12). So limiting students’ use of cameras in school is vital.

The issue at hand is that school policies are too generic, and do not encapsulate all situations, and thus kids get in trouble for recording where they should be allowed to. With this technological boom, new tech can be used to better benefit students in the classroom to great effect, even if it is technically not permitted by school policy. Take the IDEA ( Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) for example. As a student with a younger brother with a disability, this act makes a lot of sense to someone with nearly 10 years of experience tutoring a student with a learning disability. Under the act, “parents of children with disabilities to have an expanded role in the evaluation and educational placement of their children…in developing, reviewing, and revising the IEPs for their children” (text 2). A great way for parents to have a better understanding of what is happening in class, and/or help their child at home with school topics is to review an audio or video file taken from a class period. While some schools forbid the use of recording devices, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, “students with disabilities who are unable to take or read notes have the right to record class lectures only for personal study purposes” (text 13). For students that need the extra assistance, they should be able to use technology to get that extra help, even if it means bending the school’s policies on recording in the classroom.

Most importantly when discussing Jacob’s scenario, is the safety implications regarding recording in schools. Safety of human life should always be the number one concern, regardless of age, race, or background. With a dramatic rise in school shootings, as well as online/physical bullying, the safety of kids is constantly in question at school. In Jacob’s case, he was looking out for the safety of his immediate classmate, but also the safety of any other students that have been abused by faculty figures. Another example of in-class abuse occurred on October 30th, 2015 at McClatchy High School. “Two student videos showed English teacher David Fritz…lunging into a seated student, pushing him out of his desk and onto the floor while apparently trying to grab his cellphone. The videos led to the teacher’s suspension and arrest that day on suspicion of willful cruelty toward a child. Police said later the teacher showed signs of alcohol impairment” (Text 9). Both of these occurrences, and many others are purely unacceptable. In order to combat these issues, kids have taken action by providing proof of these situations by recording them.

You have, as a citizen of the United States of America, the “First Amendment right to videotape law enforcement officers while performing their duties in public” (Text 6). Jacob, as the students in the McClatchy High School occurrence were, simply utilizing his first amendment right to help spread awareness for those kids that have been negatively affected by similar issues as the student in his video. For those kids, he is a hero, not a rule breaking villain.

Really it all comes down to privacy versus safety, and when one is more important than the other. In Jacob’s case, the safety of his fellow student, as well as the safety of other endangered students was more important than the blurred-student’s privacy in the video he posted online. And while he did break school policies regarding videography, he should be shown as a brave young man, making a difference.