Principal Interrogator: A Call for Youth Informed Analysis of Schoolhouse Interrogations
23 J. Gender, Race & Just. 77 (2020).
In the wake of Making a Murderer, which exposed the police-induced false confession of cognitively limited sixteen-year-old Brendan Dassey to rape and murder, and When They See Us, depicting New York police coerce five adolescent and teenage boys into falsely confessing to rape and attempted murder, there is a newfound public outcry over the psychologically coercive tactics that police use to interrogate youth across our country. Parents are often shocked to learn that their children can be interrogated by police without an attorney or a parent present, and often without a parent even being notified. People are similarly appalled to hear that police are allowed to deceive suspects, even kids, with lies about the evidence and the potential consequences to get a confession. Thankfully, at least some courts across the country are bringing renewed rigor to their examination of the interrogations of youth and giving teeth to the special care that the United States Supreme Court requires for kids in the interrogation room.
Modern school-based policing practices, however, make it increasingly likely that students will experience interrogations at school rather than the police station, and often by a school official, like the vice-principal, rather than a police officer. This is problematic because these schoolhouse interrogations regularly evade judicial review and leave the youth without any constitutional protections. Suspects interrogated by law enforcement are entitled to receive their Miranda warnings before any interrogation begins, advising the suspect of his right to remain silent, that anything he says may be used against him, and of his right to an attorney during questioning. Due process also prohibits law enforcement from eliciting an involuntary statement from suspects, and courts evaluate confessions elicited by police for voluntariness. Yet, on school grounds, statements elicited from students by school officials are regularly denied these protections. For the most part, courts do not require that students be provided their Miranda rights, and courts typically do not evaluate a student’s schoolhouse statement for voluntariness. Even in states where local laws require parents to be notified when a juvenile under a certain age is interrogated, the laws do not apply to interrogations by school officials. School officials are not law enforcement state actors; thus, courts hold that they are not subject to the same constitutional obligations. But, regardless of the identity of the interrogator, the results are the same: a student may be prosecuted in court and subject to criminal consequences based on their confession.
While the law on juvenile police interrogations moves forward, the law on schoolhouse interrogations has remained stagnant, and in some cases even moved backward. The United States Supreme Court held long ago that youth must be treated with the greatest care in the interrogation room, directing courts to apply special care when analyzing whether a youth validly waived his Miranda rights and whether his confession was truly voluntary. Recently, courts have been applying special care to juvenile interrogation and confessions with renewed vigor, particularly as public ire over this issue increased. Many courts now recognize that a confession from a youth must be analyzed through the eyes of a child.
Yet, courts do not apply the same special care to the analysis of students’ statements elicited at school. Instead, when faced with a student confession, courts routinely conduct a simplistic analysis that wholly ignores the special care doctrine. Many courts justify blindly blessing a student’s schoolhouse interrogation based on a superficial analysis with the outdated notion that school officials act in loco parentis (with the authority of the parent, not the state). The implication seems to be that school officials are benevolently looking out for the student’s best interest and the safety of the student body, and thus the school official’s conduct requires less scrutiny than law enforcement. When the first school interrogation cases were percolating through the courts about fifteen years ago, a handful of courts conducted a more robust analysis. Today, however, most courts short circuit the need for any substantive analysis with a holding that the school official is not law enforcement and was acting in the interest of school safety. This article aims to demonstrate why such blanket assumptions are gravely misplaced.
Interrogations are commonplace in our schools. Given the reality that the schoolhouse now often leads to the jailhouse, we must provide students constitutional protections during in-school interrogations, regardless of who conducts the questioning. A recent development makes the provision of Miranda and due process to students even more imperative: John E. Reid & Associates, the company that markets and trains nearly all law enforcement on how to interrogate adult criminal suspects, is now training school officials how to interrogate their students using police tactics—tactics which already have been widely recognized to be psychologically coercive and likely to elicit false and involuntary statements from juvenile suspects.
This article sheds light on this troubling trend in schools across our country—kids being criminally prosecuted, or adjudicated in juvenile court, based on statements they made to a school official like a teacher, principal, or other school administrator—administrators—not a police officer. This article argues that the current legal framework for evaluating whether such statements can be admitted in court is inadequate and fails to recognize what we now know about interrogation tactics, youth vulnerability to such tactics, and the realities of today’s schools and their pervasive interaction with law enforcement. This article argues that, if any legitimate question remained about whether constitutional protections should be required for schoolhouse statements, the fact that school officials are now being trained to interrogate like law enforcement answers that question. The legal hurdles to litigating such confessions are then examined and a new legal framework is proposed. This article also proposes some additional creative litigation strategies for keeping a student’s confession to a school official out of court.