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Rights & Responsibilities

In school, and in many other parts of their lives, the rights of young people are routinely limited and often denied. Perhaps there is justification, perhaps not, but justification ought to be reviewed from time to time. (Now’s the time.)

It’s interesting to review the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights from this perspective. Students do not enjoy freedom of speech in school—if they communicate out of turn, or offer potentially troublesome ideas, they are strongly discouraged, removed from class and perhaps, from school. The same is true for student press, except in the most enlightened schools. Students are not free to assemble, except in certain recreational spaces during certain prescribed hours. When class is in session, students are not permitted to leave the classroom (except with special permission, which may be denied). Student protests? Not during school hours, not on school property. Practice of religion—not in a public school. Right to bear arms? Absolutely not. Unreasonable search and seizure? Suspicion of unsafe or illegal stuff in a student locker or backpack… Mandatory attendance? Until a certain age, students are legally required to attend school.

Whether inside or outside of school, minors cannot sign contracts or file lawsuits. They do not control their own medical treatment, or their last will and testament. They cannot drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. They may be committed to a hospital or psychiatric institution against their will. They cannot drive or marry—until they reach an age specified by the state. They are not allowed to engage in sexual activities. A young women’s right to an abortion is limited. Their choice of learning materials may be censored by adults. They may be required to obey a dress code. They cannot vote. When they work, they may be unfairly paid.

As recently as 1990, the United Nations published The Rights of a Child. Happily, the U.N. also published The Children’s Version of the document. Several key points:

  1. Children are people under 18;

  2. “No child should be treated unfairly for any reason;”

  3. “Governments should make sure that people and places responsible for looking after children are doing a good job;”

  4. “Governments should let families and communities guide their children so that, as they grow up, they learn to use their rights in the best way. The more children grow, the less guidance they will need;”

  5. “Children can choose their own thoughts, opinions and religion, but this should not stop other people from enjoying their rights;” and

  6. “Children have the right to give their opinions freely on issues that affect them. Adults should listen and take children seriously.”

Many of Declaration’s other rights are related to personal identity, family, safety and survival (in total, the document details more than forty rights). The Rights of a Child was approved by every United Nations member except the United States.

Digital rights are even more vexing. They must be addressed in and out of school. The U.K.’s 5Rights Foundation offers a framework for young people’s digital rights:

  1. Right to Remove: to easily remove what you yourself have put up on the internet;

  2. Right to Know when your data is being exchanged, by whom, and for what purpose, along with the decision whether to engage;

  3. Right to Safety and Support: what is illegal must be pursued by the law, but much of what upsets young people online is not illegal; support is sparse, fragmented and largely invisible to those children and young people when they need it most;

  4. Right to Informed and Conscious Use: counter to use of technology that is deliberately designed for young people to keep them attached, or addicted; and

  5. Right to Digital Literacy: understanding the purposes of the technology that you are using; growing up as a creator, contributor, and informed consumer with a clear grasp of the likely social outcomes.

Given the freedom associated with identity, socialization and individual learning, we should revisit rights granted, rights not granted, possible revisions, and the process by which we make these decisions.


The popular Harvard law professor Michael Sandel looked back to the 1838-9 publication of an influential work by political philosopher Francis Leiber who “started with the observation that the polity where men ‘claim, maintain, or establish rights’ cannot be a lawful and ordered one ‘without acknowledging corresponding and parallel obligations.’”

That is: rights and responsibilities (or duties) are two sides of the same coin. My rights are insured by your responsibilities, and it is your duty to assure my rights. For example, I may exercise my right to speak freely, but this is possible only if you allow me to do so.

In the previous section, we looked at limitations of rights for minors. Let’s look more closely at the same issue through the lens of associated responsibilities (mostly a U.S. lens).

Freedom of speech in school: the present-day structure, in which students learn in well-organized classroom groups, would be disrupted if everyone spoke their mind at will. The same would be true in a town hall meeting or in a theater, but people in these settings accept shared responsibility for reasonable decorum. Students are capable of this behavior. They routinely exhibit compliance. So, the problem is not behavior. The problem is the need for classroom management in order to push through curriculum. We curtail free speech in order to maintain the required pace of instruction. Too much time spent asking questions or exploring ideas slows things down. If students learn individually or in small groups, the exercise of free speech (and active listening) would be promoted as part of the learning process. Similar thinking applies to freedom of assembly; hopefully, freedom of religion, too.

Not so for guns, or the right to bear arms. Here, the concept of my right and your responsibility is clear. Yes, I have the right to bear arms, but the school’s duty to protect students (and staff) probably overrides my right. If a well-regulated militia was acknowledged as a reasonable school activity, then my right to bear arms as part of my participation in a well-regulated militia might be stronger than students’ and teachers’ rights to the school’s protection. This is would be a difficult case to resolve.

Would the same exercise of public safety criteria allow search and seizure of contents in a backpack or a school locker? Here, exercise of my rights, and your associated responsibilities, would be a matter of circumstance and degree. If I made a dangerous threat, or previously engaged in dangerous activities, or if the contents were dangerous (a bomb, a knife, a vial of poison), then public safety probably becomes the overriding consideration.

How about compulsory school attendance? Does every child and teenager have a duty to attend school so he or she will be educated for the greater good? Do adults share responsibility for every student’s attendance? Not really. If a child or teenager does not attend school, most states do their best to solve the individual problem, but the ultimate recourse is a fine and possible imprisonment for the parent or guardian, and restrictions for the minor.

For the protection of themselves and others, students are not permitted to drink alcohol. This seems responsible, but it’s unreasonable to limit the restriction to people under age 18. Alcohol is a more dangerous problem for people age 21-25 than for those who are 16-20 years old. And it’s twice as dangerous for males than females. If our shared responsibility is to protect the community, then rules should be synchronized with data. And then, we face the question of preventive intent: if numbers for females are increasing, do we impose equally severe laws on females because they might mimic their male counterparts? By age 26, the impact of alcohol settles down, but not everywhere, and not at the same time. Do we analyze by block, by family income, by propensity to smoke cigarettes, by college enrollment in order to share responsibility across the whole community, and keep everyone safe, or safer than before?

One of the great responsibilities of citizenship in the U.S., and in most other countries, is voting in elections. The planet, our political systems, our economy, control over digital media and associated rights are in turmoil, but the people who will live with this turmoil are considered too young to make decisions about leadership, representation and policy. The obvious solution is competence—but measuring competence often excludes disadvantaged or poorly educated voters of any age. This is a reasonable concern, but it doesn’t address the question of why a citizen can vote at age eighteen, but not at seventeen, or sixteen. (In eleven countries, you can vote if you’re under eighteen, but in eight countries, you must be older.) In the past, children and teenagers may were poorly informed because they lacked access to information. This is no longer true; access to information is abundant, and young people have access to the same information as adults. An irresponsible teenager cannot vote at age seventeen on Thursday, October 1, 2020 at 11:59PM, but the same person becomes responsible a minute later when they turn eighteen on Friday, October 2, 2020 at 12 midnight. If you want to vote, believe you should vote, know about the candidates, even teach others in the school and community about the issues in the upcoming election, but cannot vote, it is difficult to see the logic in this rule. If we’re going to be arbitrary, might every person in the U.S. who intends to vote pass the test for U.S. Naturalization? Try these questions: “The words ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ are in what founding document?” “Why does each state have two senators?” “When did all men get the right to vote?” (*PAUSE*) Answers below.

The answers: Declaration of Independence; equal representation (for small states), or The Great Compromise (Connecticut Compromise); After the Civil War, or During Reconstruction, or (with the) 15th Amendment, or 1870.

As citizens, as residents, as communities, we share a responsibility to balance rights and responsibilities for everyone, not just for people over 18. The abundance of rights limited and denied, and responsibilities deemed beyond minors’ reach, are recorded here not to cure them one-by-one, but instead, to raise bigger questions about how and why rights are granted.

As we establish a more reasonable, more equitable, more productive path for 21st century education, we must not ignore these questions, or kick them down the road. Instead, it is time to open the discussion, and to debate the need for change. At this point, many adults are still uncomfortable with the whole idea of discussing rights and responsibilities with children and teenagers. That approach supports and extends a 20th century status quo. For many communities, this is the safe, sage, defensible position. Unfortunately, that approach does not align with the 21st century’s most powerful force for young people: agency.

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