Tomorrow, the United States Supreme Court will consider a case tomorrow which questions how criminal procedural rights, the Miranda Warning, apply in school settings. The Supreme Court will be considering whether juveniles are entitled to Miranda protections when they’re questioned by police and school officials at school.
In the case of J.D.B. v North Carolina, during an interview that included both police and school officials, a special needs student suspected of burglary and who had been seen in possession of one of the allegedly stolen items, confessed to his crimes at the urging of an assistant principal. This interview took place in a school conference room.
Some have argued that an adult being detained in a school conference room would reasonably understand that s/he could leave at any time without criminal consequences. But, would a student know that s/he has the right to terminate the interview and leave?
This question is critical to the court’s decision in this case. I submit that a non-custodial interview provides the opportunity for these professionals to learn about these behaviors. Using a non-custodial interview to obtain information from a suspect is an important tool and it should not be eliminated simply because the officer is interviewing a student on school property.
First, let us consider the environment in which the interview takes place: a school conference room. We know that student rights are curtailed while they are in school. Their movements are restricted, their behavior is regulated, and they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This environment exists to provide for the safety and orderly education of all the students, faculty, administrators, and visitors at the school. Students know this environment very well and they are comfortable in this environment. Also, the interview was in a conference room, not the police officer’s office or school administrator’s office.
Second, we know that effective policing of schools relies heavily on the relationship an officer can develop with the students. This positive relationship opens the door for students to talk with the police officers. Frequently these conversations can turn toward providing information about delinquent and dangerous behavior.
In addition, cooperative work between law enforcement and education officials is critical to providing a safe environment. Too often after a violent incident we say: “Why didn’t someone say something?” Or, if the perpetrator had spoken to a staff at the school, we question why the information wasn’t shared effectively with other professionals involved in that person’s life. Often, the perpetrator of that crime is troubled and had sought some help before committing the crime.
So, keeping the officers connected to the students in a safe and open manner is critical to the successful policing of that school. Likewise, school officials have a duty to stay informed about the behaviors of their students and to work with other professionals, including law enforcement officers.
The student in this case was interviewed in school. The student was not restricted more than other students. After the interview the student left the conference room and went home on the school bus. We should not assume that the interview violated the student’s rights. In fact, the procedure followed in this case is consistent with legal precedent for non-custodial interviews.
What seems to be more important is how the student, school administrator, and police interacted. Some might see the police and school administrator “ganging up on the student” because the school administrator encouraged the student to tell the truth. I would think that having our school officials encourage our children to tell the truth is a message we could all support. Certainly we don’t want to send the message that the student should not tell the truth. Do we?
I suggest we should be talking about how these professionals work with the student to help that student find a better path. Both the officer and the school administrator can and should ensure that in a non-custodial interview, the student knows that they can end the interview and leave. The school official can provide balance and advocacy for that student while participating in the fact finding.
Once the facts are known, they can bring in other resources to support the student in a life change. Other teachers, counselors, parents and family are connected to schools and should be readily available to help the student offender grow into a productive, law-abiding member of our community.
We should not create new legal obstacles in a school setting that hamper the truth. Instead we should be looking for ways to add resources to help the student offender once their bad behavior has been identified. Indeed a school that seeks the truth about student behavior, and then uses all the resources it can find ways to assist those students who have demonstrated bad behavior to find a new path, is going to be providing the best educational environment anywhere.
Richard Gardell is CEO of 180 Degrees in Minneapolis, a provider of prevention and intervention services for juveniles and adults. Gardell was a police officer for 31 years, including five years as assistant chief with the St. Paul Police Department.