Polygraph Test for Students Comes Under Fire
BARTOW, Fla. (AP) _ Lakeland High School student body president Steve Misencik graduated last week with honors, a college scholarship, and the haunting memory of ″the most nerve-wracking experience of my life.″
Misencik, accused of grade changing, was among about 350 students in the district to be given lie detector tests since 1981 to determine whether they were telling the truth about alleged infractions ranging from drug abuse to cursing at teachers.
The practice, which Misencik says forced him ″to prove my innocence instead of someone having to prove my guilt,″ faces a court challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Officials of the Polk County school district defend the polygraph as a way for students to exonerate themselves when accused by a peer or a teacher of conduct code violations.
Misencik, who is on standby to attend the Air Force Academy, took the test last year from a school-designated examiner who, he said, tried to manipulate him into confessing that he altered a grade in a teacher’s book. ″I was told to just go ahead and admit that I had done it instead of wasting time and taking the test to find out I was guilty,″ he said.
Ten days later the charges were dropped. Misencik said he still doesn’t know the results of the polygraph or who made the accusation.
″We didn’t have a choice. We were told take a lie detector test or face a 10-day suspension,″ Misencik’s mother, Jo, said Friday, the day after her son’s graduation. ″We were trapped - judged without proof on somebody’s word. That children have to prove themselves innocent, isn’t that a horrible thing to be taught in school?″
Testing, used only from seventh through 12th grades, requires consent of parent and student and is not forced on anyone, administrators said. It is used when the infraction is serious enough to warrant expulsion, long-term suspension or reassignment to a school for youths with disciplinary problems.
Failure on the test is not the only criterion for determining guilt, while passing the test exonerates the student, officials said.
The ACLU, representing three students and their parents, plans to go federal court in Tampa as early as next month to try to stop use of the test, said attorney Steve Forester of Miami.
″The sole defense of the polygraph is exoneration and that presumes people are guilty,″ Forester said. ″It goes against the presumption of innocence which is fundamental in our society and which distinguishes our society from places like the Kremlin.″
Of the 130 or so students subjected to the test this year, 41 passed, according to Nancy Simmons, school board chairwoman. Results in four other cases were inconclusive.
Ms. Simmons said she supports the polygraph because she spoke with students and some parents whose children took the test and found support among them. ″Kids had been set up by other kids and the polygraph was the only way they could clear themselves,″ she said.
Board member Ted Aggelis, a strong defender of the test, said: ″What bothers me is when the liberal news media and the ACLU come in and try to set policy. ... If we really had that much wrong with it, I think it would have surfaced before.″
Superintendent John Stewart refused to be interviewed. ″I have said all I’m going to say. My last memo was very clear and simple. It reflects the fact that I have asked the board to discontinue use of the polygraph.″
The polygraph was implemented by adminstrative action, not school board policy, in 1981 and was not challenged locally. But a series of articles by The News Chief of Winter Haven this spring reported that civil rights lawyers, child psychiatrists and school officials in other counties were shocked to learn that students were given the tests.
Stewart, superintendent since November 1983, asked the board April 10 to limit the test’s use to cases involving expulsion. The board voted 4-0 against the modification.
As controversy mounted, Stewart suddenly banned the test later that month, saying, ″The results of the polygraph are so flawed and so unreliable that we can’t continue to use them.″
But despite overwhelming opposition at a May 27 public hearing at which one parent warned the practice would earn Polk County the label ″Salem of the South,″ the board voted 3-2 to reinstate it.