Yesterday John Dryden, the Illinois teacher who warned his students that they did not have to answer questions about alcohol and drug use on a survey distributed by their high school, got a warning of his own. The Kane County Chronicle reports that the Batavia School Board voted to issue "a written warning of improper conduct" to Dryden, who also was docked a day's pay. Batavia School Superintendent Jack Barshinger explained Dryden's offense this way:
In this case, district teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists and others worked together for over a year to select a data-gathering instrument that could be used to determine what social or emotional issues our high school students are experiencing, and whether individual students could benefit from new or increased supportive intervention by our staff. These purposes were shared with our parents and our teachers.
The issue before the board was whether one employee has the right to mischaracterize the efforts of our teachers, counselors, social workers and others; and tell our students, in effect, that the adults are not here to help, but that they are trying to get you to "incriminate" yourselves.
Barshinger seems to think it is inconceivable that there could be anything wrong with the survey, since people with good intentions worked on it for "over a year." Yet the survey forms that Dryden picked up from his mailbox 10 minutes before his first class on April 18 not only asked about illegal behavior; they had students' names on them, thereby destroying any assurance of confidentiality.
Forget for a minute whether or not the public school employees were trustworthy (which is a heroic assumption in and of itself). But consider local law enforcement. They get a tip that kids have admitted drug use on these forms. What do they do? Well in many jurisdictions (imagine our own Joe Arpaio in action here) the police would immediately pull out every legal stop (and a few illegal ones likely) to seize these surveys.
Don't believe me? Back in 2003 Major League Baseball asked its players to take a super-confidential drug test whose results would never be released for the purpose of assessing the extent of steroid use in baseball (almost exactly the same purpose the school is claiming). Eventually, the FBI, Congress, and every other government agency tried, and were eventually mostly successful, in obtaining these supposedly secret confidential tests.
Several years later, Frank Mitchell was asked by MLB to investigate the steroid issue. He asked for players to speak to him "confidentially" about steroid use. The Players Association took better care of its members than this particular school does of its students, counseling players:
...while Senator Mitchell pledges in his memo that he will honor any player request for confidentiality in his report, he does not pledge, because he cannot pledge, that any information you provide will actually remain confidential and not be disclosed without your consent. For example, Senator Mitchell cannot promise that information you disclose will not be given to a federal or state prosecutor, a Congressional committee, or perhaps turned over in a private lawsuit in response to a request or a subpoena.
This is EXACTLY the statement that could and should have been made to students about this drug survey -- three cheers for one brave teacher willing to do so. Shame on the rest of the school for its naivete (at best) and callous disregard for the students (at worst).