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Hot-Wiring High School

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Last year Galen Price, then a freshman at Mount Tabor High in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, learned a lesson omitted from the school's civics curriculum: If you're 15, the Constitution may not apply to you.

This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.

About the Author

Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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In the latest action against the union-busting low-wage retailer, labor organizers may have finally found a strategy that works.

Ha llegado el momento en que demócratas y progresistas conscientes sigan el ejemplo de Nueva York y tomen distancia de este oscuro seductor.

The Winston-Salem School Board was considering requiring drug tests for all high school students who want to participate in extracurricular activities. What about the Fourth Amendment? Price wondered. Don't random pee tests figure under the rubric "unreasonable searches and seizures"? But there wasn't much Price could do as a lone objector. "People would say, 'Do you do drugs? If not, why do you care?'" he recalls. "I don't do drugs and I don't plan to. That's not what this is about." In frustration, Price wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU put him in touch with Ben Smilowitz, a teenager in West Hartford, Connecticut. Smilowitz heads the International Student Activism Alliance (ISAA), a fast-growing student organization that is using the Internet, among other tools, to build a national political network of teenagers, many in quite isolated schools and situations.

Together Price and Smilowitz researched relevant case law. The drug-test requirement passed, but the organizing had just begun. Price started his own ISAA chapter and established it as an official school club. When he moved to West Forsyth High School in the same district, he started a chapter there as well. Although the clubs have so far been unable to stop drug testing in Winston-Salem, Price is currently looking for plaintiffs for a court challenge, and his efforts have provided the basis for anti-drug testing campaigns elsewhere. In New Jersey the State Board of Education is considering a nearly identical law; the Edison, New Jersey, ISAA chapter is gearing up for a national lobbying and public education campaign on the constitutionality of random drug testing.

The International Student Activism Alliance--run by and for high school students since its founding in 1996--has 160 chapters (at least one in nearly every state) and some 1,200 members. Although most of the problems the group tackles--administrations that won't allow gay student clubs, lack of federal college loans, censorship and repression in schools--are domestic, the group calls itself "International" because, as Brattleboro, Vermont, state coordinator Abby Krasner explains, "the [power] issues are international."

It's an opportune time for such organizing. To a dizzying degree, adult social and cultural anxieties about sex, violence, race, class and tax dollars are being projected onto teenagers. Urban ills--from drugs and gangs to incivility--are summarily blamed on "hip-hop culture," and any dark-skinned kid wearing baggy pants is treated as a criminal. The media routinely depict black and Latino boys as subhuman "super-predators" (in Princeton sociologist John DiIulio's delicate phrase) and girls of all types as mall-rat Medeas, leaving their babies to die in restrooms or dumpsters. Minors convicted of crimes are increasingly sentenced as adult offenders, and young mothers suffer disproportionately under "welfare reform."

While the greatest hostility is directed at minority kids who are poor or working class, the heat is on all kids, including middle-class white kids, who make up most of the ISAA's membership. "Zero-tolerance policies" (break one school rule and you're suspended), uniforms and dress codes, newspaper censorship, mandatory drug testing and a host of other assaults on students' rights are on the rise--and, post-Littleton, the situation has only got worse. Jamie Rinaldi, an ISAA co-founder, says, "It's all about quick justice. On the radio, when we debated the school-uniforms issue, people always called up to say, 'Well, kids need discipline.' But kids don't want to go to school as it is--why make it even more like a prison?"

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