WATERLOO — A student refuses to stand for the national anthem at a school event and gets punished.
The hypothetical scenario with parallels to real-life events affecting professional athletes was created by the Iowa State Bar Association’s young lawyers division for its Know Your Constitution program. Ninth- through 12th-graders across the state were invited last fall to write an essay on the constitutional implications of a school district policy taking action against students in such a situation.
For West High School senior Gillian Aarons and Zoe Edgington, a freshman at Holmes Junior High School in Cedar Falls, their essays were the ticket to an all-expense-paid Washington D.C. trip this week. They will participate in a five-day education seminar sponsored by the Close-Up Foundation.
The pair was among 100 students from across Iowa chosen to attend a January luncheon in Des Moines based on the essays they submitted. After hearing state Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager speak, five of the students’ names were drawn at random for the trip. Two others going on the trip are also from northeast Iowa — Daylene Ritter of North Butler High School in Greene and Eric Trautsch of Crestwood High School in Cresco — while the fifth student is from Cedar Rapids.
Aarons’ government class was assigned the essay and the Know Your Constitution program’s companion 50-question multiple choice quiz. Supplementing that was teacher Tom Yuska’s in-depth lessons about the U.S. Constitution.
“I didn’t really pay attention to what was in it until I was in this class,” Aarons said of the foundational American document. She hadn’t thought much about free speech rights or censorship, either, before starting her research.
“It was kind of eye-opening how often this stuff happens,” she added. “In my essay, I said it was unconstitutional to not allow (students) to peacefully protest.”
Students in Edgington’s honors U.S. history class were given the option of taking the quiz and writing the essay as an enrichment activity. She also favored the hypothetical student’s position in her essay. “He was not interrupting the right of the school to operate in any way,” she said.
Both students were given access to relevant court rulings by their teachers and did other research to prepare for writing the essay.
“I used cases that had already been decided,” said Edgington, including Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case determined that students have a First Amendment right to free expression at school that cannot be censored unless it interrupts the educational process.
“In my own personal research I found some other things,” she said, including Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. While that 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled in favor of school administrators who censored stories in a student newspaper, Edgington found some points that contributed to her argument.
“They want to see that you’ve done research into multiple cases, not just the one,” she said. “They also wanted you to reference the Constitution.” She talked about the first and 14th amendments to the Constitution in her essay.
Kevin Kuker, Zoe’s teacher, said constitutional amendments are a hot topic in class. “They seem to come up a lot in discussion,” he noted.
Aarons “researched some of the stuff in the Constitution about freedom of expression” and looked at a number of cases, including those pertaining to gun rights. “If people can defend that right, then people should be able to peacefully protest,” she said.
Writing the essay and taking the quiz are assignments that initially cause some groans in Yuska’s classes. But as students get to talking about the featured topic, “then they start having fun,” he said. “It’s kind of a fun 2-1/2 weeks when we work on it.”
Students write and review a rough draft before turning in the essay. “They’re like a lawyer, but they have to argue on paper,” said Yuska.
Six students from his classes were chosen for the luncheon. Four of Kuker’s students were chosen, as were another six from Peet Junior High and Cedar Falls High School. Across northeast Iowa, at least 24 students were chosen to attend the luncheon.
Yuska and Kuker are accompanying their students to Washington, with expenses covered by the bar association, and will attend Close-Up sessions for teachers. Other students from West and Columbus Catholic High School also are part of the trip.
A group of students that pays for the Close-Up trip is organized each year by Yuska and Columbus teacher Gabriel Dunn. This year that includes 13 other students from West and 18 from Columbus. “Black Hawk County will be represented very well,” said Kuker.
Along with the seminars, students participate in activities such as visiting monuments, spending a day at the U.S. Capitol, and meeting Iowa’s elected officials. Students from across the country participate in the Close-Up program and will be attending with those from the Cedar Valley.
“I’m really excited to meet a lot of new people,” said Aarons.
“It’s a completely new place,” added Edgington. Neither she nor Aarons have ever visited the nation’s capital. “It’s going to be a bit of an eye-opening experience.”