Although it would be a mistake to conclude that the rights of students had their origins exclusively in decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is only fair to note that the Court required the application of due process standards to student discipline in U.S. public schools. The starting point was Goss v. Lopez (1975), in which the Supreme Court required, even for a short-term suspension, that a student be informed of accusations against him or her, be given an opportunity to respond, and, on denying the accusation, be informed of the evidence of guilt. For longer suspensions, or expulsions, the Supreme Court required even more formal due process hearings.
However, two years later, in Ingraham v. Wright (1977), the Supreme Court refused to require due process hearings prior to the imposition of corporal punishment and held that the corporal punishment of schoolchildren does not represent cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment or the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in applying Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights ("No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment") have been mixed. However, the European Commission on Human Rights did find the punishment of a sixteen-year-old girl who received corporal punishment from a male teacher in the presence of another male, resulting in her injury, to be degrading treatment (Warwick v. United Kingdom, 1986). When a fifteen-year-old male student at a private school in the United Kingdom was "caned" four times on his buttocks, causing severe bruises, he brought suit. The Commission determined that the caning was degrading under Article 3 (Y v. United Kingdom,
1992), although that decision was withdrawn when the United Kingdom settled the case later. However, in a case brought by a seven-year-old male student who received three "whacks" on his buttocks, the punishment was not found to be of sufficient severity to constitute degrading treatment (Costello-Roberts v. United Kingdom, 1993).
The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, applying Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"), has determined that the excessive punishment of students may be a violation of this article.
The outcomes in the United States regarding searches of students also have been mixed. In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the U. S. Supreme Court held that students were entitled to some Fourth Amendment protection, although the standard for searches could be less than probable cause. Instead, a particularized reasonable suspicion, directed toward a specific student, might be a sufficient basis for a search. In Vernonia School District v. Action (1995), the Supreme Court did uphold a school's drug-testing program, even in the absence of particularized suspicion, although the testing was limited to students participating in interscholastic sports.
Respecting freedom of expression, the U.S. Supreme Court has extended protection to public school students, although again with mixed outcomes. The first case was Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), in which the Court determined that high-school students wearing a black armband as a form of protest against the Vietnam War were protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments. That was the high point legally speaking, for subsequent cases represent at least a partial judicial retreat from Tinker. In Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) the Court held that a high school student's use of sexual innuendo in a nominating speech before a high school assembly was not protected, whereas in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1998) it found that a high school principal was entitled to some discretion in censoring newspapers produced as part of the school's curriculum.
Bethel School District v. Fraser. 478 U.S. 675 (1986).
Costello-Roberts v. United Kingdom. 19 EHRR (1993).
Goss v. Lopez. 419 U.S. 565 (1975).
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. 484 U.S. 260 (1988).
Ingraham v. Wright. 430 U.S. 651 (1977).
New Jersey v. T.L.O. 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
Tinker v. Des Moines School District. 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
Vernonia School District v. Action. 515 U.S. 646 (1995).
Warwick v. U.K. Application 9471/81 60 Decisions and Reports 5 (1986).
Y v. United Kingdom. 17 EHRR 238 (1992).
Donald W. Jackson