School Discipline: An Occasional Series on Developments in School Disciplinary Policies and Practices

Last Updated: November 26, 2010

This article appeared in the November 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Police Interrogation Case

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a police interrogation of a special education student in North Carolina public schools. By doing so, the Court could clarify limitations on law enforcement actions in schools.

The case, In re J.D.B., originated in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2005. The then-13-year-old J.D.B. was accused of breaking into several homes and possessing what appeared to be some of the stolen property. He was called from his classroom by a uniformed school resource officer (SRO) and taken to a conference room, where he was questioned by a juvenile crimes investigator, the SRO, and two school administrators. The student confessed to the crimes and then made a written statement.

The student was not advised of his Miranda rights. The Miranda v. Arizona Supreme Court decision requires suspects to be advised fo their right to remain silent, to be told that any statement they make could be used as evidence against them, and to be advised of the right to either appointed or retained counsel.

In addition, the student's parents were not contacted, despite the fact that North Carolina law, like that of many states, requires that juveniles be advised of their Miranda rights and told that they have the right to have a parent or guardian present during custodial questioning.

Custodial interrogations are those in which a reasonable person would not consider himself free to leave or to end the interview. This standard is typically applied as an objective analysis, without consideration of the individual being questioned. The question of whether a juvenile suspect’s age should be considered in determining whether the setting was indeed custodial has been left open by the U.S. Supreme Court, and state courts have split on the issue. The North Carolina Supreme Court declined to consider J.D.B.’s age or other characteristics because, in their opinion, that would make the determination "subjective in nature."

The dissenting justices on the North Caroling court took issue with the majority opinion on two points: one, that a "reasonable person" test should necessarily take into account personal characteristics of a juvenile; and, two, that the standard of what constitutes a custodial interrogation should be lower in school settings to better protect the rights of minors.

The dissenting justices pointed out that a student in school would rarely if ever feel free to end such a conversation with adults and walk away, and that this would especially be the case in the situation J.D.B. faced. Justice Edward Brady wrote in dissent: “That a special investigator from the police department, dressed in business attire, was making a special trip to the school would alert any reasonable middle school student that something serious was taking place, something more than a casual conversation about joining the Police Athletic League or participating in the Youth Partnership for Crime Prevention.”

Police presence in schools and the use of law enforcement tactics in schools is generally viewed as a contributing factor to the school “pushout” problem. Since the mid-1990s, the number of school-based police officers has soared, even though school crime rates have generally declined. When questioning or searching students in schools, law enforcement officers are limited by strict procedural rules meant to protect students' rights; school administrators also have responsibilities to protect students. In many cases, however, it is not clear that school administrators or law enforcement understand and abide by these limitations. One dissenting justice in the J.D.B. case pointed out that without enforcement of Miranda protections in school investigations, a perverse incentive to question students in schools arises.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear this case early next year and could hand down a decision as early as next summer.

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Coverage on the case:

North Carolina Supreme Court Decision:

Read more from the November 2010 Rural Policy Matters.