For many school administrators, the default mode is to limit the rights of students while enforcing very broadly-worded policies. The default mode may start shifting, though, as more courts are reminding administrators that, while students' rights may be more constrained than those of adults, they're not nonexistent.
Recently, a court reminded a Minnesota school district that demanding a student's Facebook password
was a violation of her First and
Fourth Amendment rights. The judge stated:
For more than forty years, the United States courts have recognized that students do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door.
In an on-going case in Kentucky, the state supreme court is trying to determine whether students are entitled to Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections
, specifically those related to "Miranda rights." (via Reason
The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering a case from Nelson County that could require school officials to give the Miranda warning – You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you ... – when questioning a student with a school resource officer present.
Miranda warnings are required when a subject is in custody – when a suspect thinks he’s not free to leave – and at issue is whether a student grilled in the principal’s office inherently fits that description.
This is an interesting question. Students being detained in principals' offices are generally granted "release" at the discretion of the administrator. It's certainly not a formal detainment, like being placed in a holding cell, but it certainly isn't optional either. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a person is in custody when "the circumstances would lead a reasonable person to conclude he was not free to leave." This would seem to be the normal conclusion a student would draw from a mandatory visit to the principal's office.
In a brief for N.C., assistant public advocate Robert Strong says that when a student is sent to the principal’s office, “He is not allowed to leave until the principal says so.” In other words, a reasonable student would conclude he was in custody, “given the coercive nature of the principal’s office,” Strong says.
This case sprung out of an incident at a Nelson County school in which a student gave another student some prescription painkillers. The "school resource officer" (actually an armed deputy sheriff) charged the student with illegally dispensing a controlled substance. The student was sentenced in a juvenile court to 45 days in an adult
prison (?). His appeal (which was denied) argued that his statement should have been suppressed because he wasn't read his Miranda rights before being questioned.
There's actually some related precedent for this case. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on students and Miranda warnings last year in a case from North Carolina, stating that the student's age must be considered when determining whether they have a right to a Miranda warning.
The facts of that case, in which a 13-year-old was interviewed by police at school about a series of neighborhood thefts, were “eerily” similar to N.C.’s case, Strong said. The boy was escorted by an armed school resource officer to an office, where he was interviewed by the officer with an assistant principal present. Neither gave him a Miranda warning.
The U.S. Supreme Court noted the purpose behind Miranda is to keep subjects from being coerced into giving false confessions, to which children are particularly prone. “A reasonable child subjected to police questioning will sometimes feel pressured to submit when a reasonable adult would feel free to go,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court.
Most students are probably unaware of their rights and administrators seem mostly unwilling to pass on that information. It's easier for adminstration if the students operate under the assumption that their rights are limited to whatever the school policies grant them. When students are being interrogated like suspected criminals, with an armed officer present, it would seem they should be granted the same rights as other criminals (especially if the end result is a stay at an adult
prison) and be given a Miranda warning before any questioning occurs. This seems like the least the school could do. But, as statements by the administration director show, the district has no interest in granting students these rights.
Simple investigations would be hamstrung and schools would be less safe if principals, every time they question a student, “must look into a crystal ball and predict, ‘This could lead to criminal charges, I have to Mirandize this child,’ ” said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.
If you're bringing an armed member of law enforcement into the room, it would seem that you've already made that determination, or have gathered enough evidence to warrant their presence. But schools with law enforcement on staff have been known to bring them along for nearly any reason, possible criminal offense or no. The case mentioned above dealt with some supposedly "bullying" statements made on Facebook about a member of the school's staff and that interrogation involved three
members of administration and
a law enforcement officer armed with a taser. To handle one
And as for the feeling that "simple investigations" would be "hamstrung" by the Miranda warning? Too bad. The police have to do it and their investigations usually concern something more threatening to safety than Facebook status updates and painkiller distribution.
Young isn't done, though. He takes the same hardline many in law enforcement and various intelligence agencies do. Alleged criminals don't deserve rights.
“If a crime is being committed in school, if somebody is handing out pain medication, I don’t think we should be troubled with constitutional niceties.”
He said courts have given schools leeway on student free-speech issues and searches, which don’t require warrants in schools, because of the importance of maintaining safety and order on campus. “The goal is to protect all children, and it doesn’t bother me if a child’s constitutional protections are limited, if it is to protect all children,” he said.
That's the same excuse used by everyone from the local school to the NSA: "safety" trumps "constitutional protections." The fact that Young refers to Constitutional rights as "niceties" reveals the condescending and dismissive attitude he has for those under his control. It's little wonder he believes that students shouldn't be read the Miranda warning, as "niceties" like the Fifth and Sixth Amendment simply get in the way of "safety" and "order." (Without Godwin-ing anything, it's a bit chilling to hear someone openly value "order" over "personal freedoms.")
Young's fears that apprising students of their Miranda rights will upset order or compromise safety are irrational. Paul Holland, dean at Seattle University Law and a Youth Advocacy Clinic instructor, believes that if school administration is going to collaborate with law enforcement when questioning students, they should "err on the side of advising students of their rights."
Holland said the fear that safety would be compromised is ill-founded because the Miranda doctrine already contains an exception when there is an imminent threat – such as for questions about the existence or location of weapons on school grounds.
Even if a student’s answers are suppressed because of a Miranda violation and couldn’t be used in a criminal case, they still could be used to suspend or expel a student, he points out in “Schooling Miranda: Policing Interrogation in the 21st Century Schoolhouse.”
It is also likely that most students will waive their right to remain silent or to an attorney, he said. “Thus, the amount of information lost to Miranda would be slight.”
Advising students of their Miranda rights is granting them a modicum of control, something Nelson County's administrators seem loathe to do. This sort of atmosphere pervades many school districts, thanks to overreaching anti-bullying policies and a general push for greater control of every aspect of their students' actions, on or off
campus. If actual
dangerous suspects are granted this right, however begrudgingly, why is it such a problem to extend it to students?