By: John Dryden
A Batavia High School teacher’s fans are rallying to support him as he faces possible discipline for advising students of their Constitutional rights before taking a school survey on their behavior.
They’ve been collecting signatures on an online petition, passing the word on Facebook, sending letters to the school board, and planning to speak at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Students and parents have praised his ability to interest reluctant students in history and current affairs.
But John Dryden said he’s not the point. He wants people to focus on the issue he raised: Whether school officials considered that students could incriminate themselves with their answers to the survey that included questions about drug and alcohol use.
Dryden, a social studies teacher, told some of his students April 18 that they had a 5th Amendment right to not incriminate themselves by answering questions on the survey, which had each student’s name printed on it.
The survey is part of measuring how students meet the social-emotional learning standards set by the state. It is the first year Batavia has administered such a survey.
School district officials declined to provide a copy of the survey to the Daily Herald, saying the district bought the survey from a private company, Multi-Health Systems Inc., and the contents are proprietary business information.
They did provide the script teachers were to read to students before the test.
It does not tell students whether participation is mandatory or optional.
An April email communication to parents said their children could choose not to take the survey, but they had to notify the district by April 17.
The survey asked about drug, alcohol and tobacco use, and emotions, according to Brad Newkirk, chief academic officer.
The results were to be reviewed by school officials, including social workers, counselors and psychologists.
The survey was not a diagnostic tool, but a “screener” to figure out which students might need specific help, Newkirk said.
Superintendent Jack Barshinger said teacher support for doing a survey grew after several suicides by students in recent years. Students and staff typically said they had no idea those teens were in distress.
“We can’t help them if we aren’t aware of their needs,” Barshinger said.
The results will also be compared from year to year, to see if interventions offered work, he said.
School officials have already reviewed the surveys and have talked to some students about their answers.
Day of the survey
Dryden said it was just “dumb luck” he learned about the contents. He picked up surveys from his mailbox about 10 minutes before his first class. Seeing students’ names on them, unlike past surveys, he started reading the 34 questions.
“Oh. Well. Ummm, somebody needs to remind them they have the ability not to incriminate themselves,” he recalled thinking. It was particularly on his mind because his classes had recently finished reviewing the Bill of Rights. And the school has a police officer stationed there as a liaison, he pointed out.Barshinger said the results weren’t shared with police.
“I made a judgment call. There was no time to ask anyone,” Dryden said. If the survey had been handed out a day or two before, he said, he would have talked to an administrator about his concern.
Instead, he gave the warning to his first-, second- and third-block classes. The test was given to all students during third block.
He suspects it was a teacher who told the administration about what Dryden had done, after the other teacher had trouble getting all the students to take the survey.
But he had also spoken afterward with administrators about the questions. “So I was already on the radar,” he said.
Dryden faces having a “letter of remedy” placed in his employment file. He said this week he is negotiating the matter with district authorities.
Only a school board can issue a letter of remedy, which informs teachers their conduct was improper and could have consequences up to dismissal, according to state law.
Barshinger declined to speak about Dryden’s specific situation. The board will discuss the matter in closed session Tuesday. Any action, however, would have to take place in open session.
Dryden mentioned his situation to a former student, Joe Bertalmio.
Bertalmio was outraged. The 2002 graduate, who took one class with Dryden, credits him with teaching him how to examine positions and make logical arguments, no matter where one stands politically.
“Back it up — give me evidence,” is what Dryden taught, Bertalmio said.
Bertalmio posted the news on Facebook, where it was noticed by fellow graduates. Parents of current students have also joined in. There are more than 1,000 signatures on the “Defend and Support John Dryden” petition at thepetitionsite.com, although many seem to be repeats. He has also urged people to write letters to the Batavia school board, plans to speak at the board’s meeting, and may have a rally before the meeting. A Batavia alderman told the city council Monday he plans to attend the meeting in support, and encouraged other people to do so.
Stick to the issue
But Dryden doesn’t want this seen as him vs. the administrators. He said he knows they were acting in what they thought was the best interests of the students.
“These are good, professional, smart people on the other side who want to do what is right by kids,” he said.
He would rather focus the discussion on the survey.
“I have asked people (the supporters) to talk about the survey. I think I am a sideshow,” he said. “This (the survey) was rushed and it wasn’t vetted.”
“I’m not a martyr,” he said. “I’m trying to refocus people’s attentions. Calm down.“