Education Law

Controversial and Hot Issues at School

There are millions of students in thousands of schools across the US. With so many kids and schools, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are always controversial and hot issues when it comes to school. And they're not always "new" debates. Some of the hottest - and oldest - issues at school are:

  • Teaching creationism and/or evolution
  • School prayer
  • The Pledge of Allegiance
  • Uniforms

Whether you have kids in school now or they're starting soon, it's a good idea to know some things about these hot issues.

Creationism vs. Evolution

This debate is decades old. Remember reading about the "Scopes Monkey Trial," or perhaps you've seen "Inherit the Wind" on TV or at a theater? It's the story of a public high school teacher in Tennessee who was charged with the crime of teaching evolution to his students in biology class. That was in 1925.

Today, 85 years later, the debate hasn't lost much of its edge. Creationism is the theory that a divine being or "creator" made the world and everything and everyone on it. Evolution, on the other hand, teaches that all life started from some sort of organic soup. Eventually, over millions of years, living creatures developed or evolved, including human beings.

Today, the debate in the schools is essentially the same as it was 1925. Beyond the scientific issues, the debate focuses on personal belief and what you want your child to learn about at school. Although many religions now accept some of the science of evolution, some religions insist all life was created by God. Many schools teach both evolution and creationism so students get both sides of the issue. Some teach one or the other.

Do you want your child taught anything about a divine being or God? Do want your child taught that humans evolved by luck or chance? These are some the questions you may want to ask when deciding on a school.

School Prayer

In schools affiliated with a particular religion, like Catholic schools, in-school prayer is expected and desired by parents and students. So, not surprisingly, this controversy is found almost entirely in public schools. And the debate centers on the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The First Amendment protects your right to practice whatever religion you desire. It also protects your right to practice no religion at all. The Amendment bars the government from establishing or promoting a religion. "Government" means any government - federal, state or local, and that includes public school districts.

As a general rule, students at public schools have a right to pray if they choose to do so. A school can't stop students from praying at the beginning of the school day or when they sit down for lunch. They can do it alone or in groups. They can't be disruptive, though. The school, on the other hand, can't encourage students to pray or "lead" a prayer.

The controversy in recent years involves:

  • Prayers at the beginning of school officials' meetings, such as school board meetings. There's no single, clear-cut rule on the issue. In some states, like Delaware, prayers are allowed. In states like Ohio the debate goes on
  • Student prayer at school functions. Can a graduation ceremony begin with a prayer when the student body has an election and agrees on it? It depends on where the school is. In Ohio the answer is probably not. In Texas, it's likely the prayer would be allowed

It seems each year there are new stories and lawsuits over prayer in various public school settings. It's a debate that may go on for years to come.

The Pledge of Allegiance

The controversy over the Pledge revolves around the phrase, "One nation, under God." It's connected to the larger argument over prayer and religion in public schools. For years, the argument has been that saying the phrase in school is promoting a religion in violation of the First Amendment. Years ago, the US Supreme Court decided public schools couldn't make students say the pledge. To this day, some schools don't say the Pledge at all, while others say it without the "under God" phrase. In many schools, students can choose whether or not to say the Pledge.

Can students say "under God" in public schools? They can in California, at least for the time being. In March 2010, a federal court decided that saying the Pledge in public schools with its reference to God doesn't violate the First Amendment. The person who sued the school district plans to ask the US Supreme Court to look at the case and hopes to get a different result.


School uniforms can range from the traditional dress code you see in Catholic and other private schools - white shirts with collars, skirts or jumpers for girls, pants for boys - to less formal uniforms, such as collared shirts, casual pants like jeans or khakis, or skirts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, many public schools have rules on uniforms or dress codes. Most states have laws allowing local school boards to make dress code rules.

What's the debate? Those in favor of school uniforms argue they:

  • Lower student violence and thefts over designer clothes or expensive gym shoes, for example
  • Stop gang activities
  • Bring discipline to the school
  • Don't require teachers to "police" appropriate/inappropriate clothes, such as shorts or skirts that are too high or shirts with questionable words or pictures on them, for example
  • Help school officials identify non-students who don't belong on school property

Those who oppose uniforms claim they:

  • Violate students' First Amendment freedom of speech and expression
  • Are too expensive or require parents to buy more clothing than they would normally
  • Make it more likely for students to get bullied by students from other schools who don't have to wear uniforms or follow a dress code

There is some middle ground. Schools can make uniform and dress code rules more appealing to students and parents alike by letting students where things like pins and buttons or jewelry to express themselves. Schools might also give financial assistance to parents who can't afford uniforms, or start a "swap" program where parents can trade uniforms with other parents for bigger or smaller sizes.

If your child's school has a uniform rule or dress code, or it's thinking about doing so, you should go to the next school board meeting and voice your opinion on the matter.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My child is being harassed by other students when she prays before eating lunch. I don't think the school is doing enough to stop it. What can I do?
  • Is my child's teacher allowed to keep a bible and other religious items on her desk?
  • How do I go about getting my school district to stop teaching evolution or creationism?
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