Constitution Day: First Amendment rights apply to students
Junior varsity cheerleader Brandi Levy failed to make her Pennsylvania school’s varsity cheer team in 2017, prompting her to express her disappointment with “vulgar” insults toward her school on Snapchat. Mahanoy Area High School officials suspended Levy from the junior varsity team for what they deemed as “disruptive behavior,” and her family decided to take the case to court.
Now, four years later, Levy’s Supreme Court case concluded in June, with the court ruling 8-1 in her favor. With today’s political climate, Prosper students said that the ruling has led them to wonder where their First Amendment rights stand once they walk through the school doors.
District lawyer Jeff Crownover said students can use their First Amendment rights in school. But, the Supreme Court rulings hold that consequences can come if student actions disrupt school operations. If an act of protest or free speech causes a substantial disruption, then a student can be subject to discipline.
“More often than not, we would prefer to not jump to disciplining a kid, if we can help it,” Crownover said. “A lot of times, just sitting a student down saying, ‘Hey, listen, I know you’re 16, but let me just explain to you that when you do this, it may seem like it’s funny or it feels good in the moment. You’re creating a permanent record, even when it’s deleted, things get screenshotted.'”
In the case of Levy, her act of free speech happened outside of school on social media. If a student in Prosper speaks against topics relating to the district outside of school, Crownover said that they may be subject to discipline if it impacts what happens in school.
“For example, let’s say a student posts something, and it makes its way back to school, and there’s a big fight in the cafeteria based on something that kid said,” Crownover said. “It caused a huge disruption at school, so now the school may be able to come in and discipline. Because, even though it was outside of school, it affected what happened in school. If you say something and an administrator just doesn’t like it, then that’s where it gets more gray.”
Crownover said that many issues surrounding the First Amendment in regard to school happen on social media.
“When you get to social media, that just gets amplified really quick,” Crownover said. “It’s not uncommon for there to be situations where a student does something outside of school, and then the question is, from an administrative standpoint, is what, if anything, should we do about that? If a teacher or administrator sees something that they think is inappropriate, they want to do something about it, but then we have to take a step back and think, ‘Is this really a school issue?’ Or is it just more of we need to talk to the student and counsel the student to say, ‘Hey, this is a bad idea’ versus actual discipline?”
We are lucky enough to be in a country where we can express our views, and should not have that taken for granted.”
— Hudson Matlock, Junior
While protesting and free speech are allowed and protected if done in a non-disruptive manner, junior Hudson Matlock said he believes that protesting should be done on a student’s personal time, and not in the classroom or at a school event.
“Students should have the right to protest, but not in the educational environment where it’s not necessary,” Matlock said. “The First Amendment, to me as a student, means that anyone can express their political identity and how they stand when it is necessary. A football game in front of thousands, including current military, veterans, and first responders is flat-out disrespectful. We are lucky enough to be in a country where we can express our views, and should not have that taken for granted.”
Despite the fact that students are allowed free speech in school, some students said that they do not “feel” safe or supported to exercise their First Amendment rights at school.
“I have only in a handful of classrooms and occasions felt my First Amendment right upheld in Prosper High School or really any public school,” senior Hailey Hamilton said. “I rarely feel like in the presence of authority I can speak freely.”
Handling controversial topics
Hamilton said she believes controversial topics need to be discussed in school but need to be handled in a way that teaches students to hold civil conversations.
“It’s a maturity issue rather than should we or should we not uphold the First Amendment right,” Hamilton said. “Instead of teaching maturity, our teachers would rather avoid the conversation altogether.”
Your job as a teacher is to present both sides of it (the argument) to your students, to make sure that they understand there are multiple ways to look at this issue.”
— Jeff Crownover
Matlock also said controversial topics should be discussed in school so that students can learn civility.
“Questions should not be worded in supporting one party,” Matlock said. “Teens all the time are blinded and misguided by social media, and never really understand what’s going on in our country because of liberal ideology and biased media.”
According to Crownover, there are more rules in place surrounding the First Amendment for staff members. In social studies courses, for example, topics can quickly become controversial, and he said that a teacher’s personal opinion shouldn’t be important.
“It’s a good thing to talk about controversial things in school. That’s how you guys learn about stuff, but it shouldn’t be so one-sided that all you’re hearing is one side of an argument,” Crownover said. “Your job as a teacher is to present both sides of it (the argument) to your students, to make sure that they understand there are multiple ways to look at this issue.”
Which of the five rights guaranteed in the First Amendment do you use the most?
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District’s attorney discusses career, goal of helping teachers support students
An aptitude test convinced then teacher Jeff Crownover to quit his job as a history instructor and go to law school. Now, as the school district’s in-house attorney, he said he combines his love for education – and the law – to support teachers, administrators and students.
Crownover first went to Baylor University to major in history with the intent of becoming a teacher.
“My parents were both educators,” Crownover said. “My dad was a coach and a principal, and my mom was a classroom aide, and so I went right out of school and was a teacher for several years.”
Crownover taught both middle and high school in all types of history courses, including Social Studies, Texas History, U.S. History and Government.
He goes above and beyond in all of the work he does. He embodies a collaborative spirit with those he interacts with and always keeps our students at the heart of his decisions and guidance. It is truly my honor to work alongside Mr. Crownover to continue to bring excellence to Prosper ISD.”
— Superintendent Holly Ferguson
“I like teaching, but I just felt like I was supposed to be doing something else,” he said. “I’ve always been passionate about public education in general and wanted to do what I could to help as many kids as I could in and the public education system.”
This prompted Crownover to take a few aptitude tests that gave him high scores in reasoning, analysis and problem-solving.
“I just kind of took a jump in and went to law school and enjoyed it, and so then, with a law school and then having taught before, it was just a natural transition,” Crownover said. “I didn’t even know there were school lawyers until I got to law school. When I realized that was the thing, that was kind of the route I wanted to go in.”
After law school, Crownover worked at a firm that helped various small districts.
“Then, I went to Lewisville ISD as their in-house attorney,” Crownover said. “But that whole time, we actually lived here in Prosper, and I was just driving to Lewisville every day. Then, when Dr. Ferguson became the superintendent, and there was an opportunity to come over here, I jumped at it. I live here. I’ve got two kids, one at Boyer and one at Reynolds. So, it was just an opportunity to be in the community here and work for the school where I live and send my kids.”
Crownover works closely with Ferguson and the school board, as well as with any teachers or staff members who need his advice.
As a former teacher and coach, Mr. Crownover has a unique perspective. He is not a lawyer who chose to work in schools, but rather someone who worked in schools and chose to serve staff and students as a district attorney.”
— Deputy superintendent Gregory Bradley
“Those are the folks that are having to implement the laws and rules and policies that we have to go by,” Crownover said. “So those are the people that are generally reaching out about ‘Hey, what do I do here?’ or ‘Help me understand what what this means,’ or ‘What do you recommend that we do in this particular situation?’ Then my job is to explain to them either whether it’s a law or board policy, and ‘Hey, here’s where we are. Here’s where I think we ought to go.'”
Crownover said he occasionally does teacher “trainings” where he informs teachers of the law and gives them advice.
“I love doing trainings,” he said. “I think that’s a benefit to having an in-house attorney. My job is to try to keep us out of trouble versus waiting until we get in trouble. I love going and talking to teachers and administrators about some of these legal things and how they can understand the law. Making sure that our teachers and administration understand that there are ways we can solve the issue without just jumping right into the AP (assistant principal) or whatever.”
His main goal is to lighten the load of teachers, to let them better focus on students.
“These teachers, it’s all they can do just to stay up-to-date in their own fields, and just to make sure that they have lesson plans, and they have to grade, and they’ve got plenty to do,” Crownover said. “They don’t have time to understand what’s going on with what laws get passed. I enjoy getting to come in and making sure they understand: ‘Hey this is this is kind of where we are’ and get them up-to-speed. I try to focus more on the practical side of it – like they don’t care what some judge said in a federal case. They just want to know how does that apply to what I’m doing. So, I appreciate being able to guide them that way. I’ll make sure we’re within the law and that they can still accomplish what they need to accomplish.”
Crownover said the biggest challenge of his job used to be how often the law changed.
“Lately, the biggest challenge is that unfortunately, public education has become kind of a political hotbed, and that makes things very difficult,” he said. “We need to make very big decisions all the time that we know a large chunk of people aren’t going to like. It’s hard when the responses by those people are that we must therefore be evil or that we don’t like kids. We chose to be here because we believe in public education and then to be told that we don’t care about kids is tough.”
Since getting into his job as district lawyer, Crownover also said he’s gone into legislative advocacy for public education.
“Prosper ISD, and every public school I’ve ever worked with, is overwhelmingly filled with people who just want to be here to help kids,” Crownover said. “They love this profession, and I’m sure sometimes they frustrate you guys. But, at the end of the day, this is not an easy job, and they don’t get paid a whole lot, and so they’re here because they want to be here.”
To Crownover, it’s all about what happens in the classroom.
“Every single thing I or any administrator do is about making sure what happens in these classrooms happens,” Crownover said. “We’re trying to take as much of the the the burden off of teachers as possible, so that they can just teach. So, that’s kind of how I feel like I help kids in that I can I can help make sure all they need to do is worry about teaching. We’ll make sure we’re all compliant, and everything’s good, and so, that hopefully, they can be free to make sure you guys are taken care of.”
Do you want to pursue a career in law?
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