Larkin Teen's Essay Raises Constitutional Questions School Officials Find Themselves Caught between Fairness, Freedom of Speech

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Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer

A Larkin High student's essay tinged with "inflammatory language against minority students" ignited a maelstrom of controversy last week, spurring debate about Mexican immigration, the American flag and citizenship.

Into this morass of issues rooted far beyond school walls tiptoed Elgin Area School District U-46 officials.

Bound to protect the teen's constitutional right to free expression while honoring their own duty to guard against academic disruptions, district officials will seek to balance the scales of justice.

Where the fulcrum falls ultimately will determine whether any disciplinary action is leveled against the student whose English assignment appeared plastered around the west Elgin school.

"When we talk in general about students and their right to express themselves," Director of Student Services Steve Klein said, "that's our guideline."

Students may freely and peacefully express ideas, a district policy on student demonstrations states, so long as it "does not disrupt the continuity of the instructional program."

Any written, verbal or physical act, however, that "has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student in such a way as to disrupt or interfere with the school's educational missions or the education of any student" is banned, a district policy concerning bullying reads.

Whether the teen's musings that Mexican holidays should not be celebrated in American schools disrupted Larkin's educational mission remains to be seen.

Yet U-46 administrators are not alone in refereeing the legal tug of war that shapes civic education in public schools nationwide.

"Clearly students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates," said William Kling, a Kent Law School professor specializing in education affairs.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

A majority of justices in 1969 determined three teenage students in Des Moines, Iowa, had every right to don black armbands in silent protest of the Vietnam War, contrary to school policy punishing any student who did so with suspension.

"We do not confine the permissible exercise of First Amendment rights to a telephone booth or the four corners of a pamphlet, or to supervised and ordained discussion in a school classroom," Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the case called Tinker vs. …