A few weeks before summer break, an eighth-grader in Fairfax County was pulled from his civics class and led into an office. An assistant principal told him that classmates had reported hearing him say he’d smoked marijuana with five other boys — days earlier, after school hours, off campus.
A uniformed police officer joined the interview.
The boy did not want to talk, his mother, Dawn Daugherty, later said, but did so after the officer told him to confess or risk “doing time.” Fairfax school officials said there was no such threat. They said the boy was told what other students had said and about the importance of telling the truth.
Daugherty did not learn of the interrogation until afterward. “I was really shocked by the whole thing,” she said.
What happened that June day at Langston Hughes Middle School led to no criminal charges, only a disciplinary action for breaking the school system’s code of conduct. But the episode illustrates some of the questions raised as the police presence has grown in public schools over the past two decades: When should students be advised they have a right to remain silent? And when should parents be notified?
Wading into this fray, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that police must factor the age of young suspects they intend to question into their decisions about giving Miranda warnings. The split decision emphasized that children are more vulnerable to pressure than adults and stressed using common sense. But it did not give specific guidelines, leaving much open to interpretation.
The ruling came in a case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, that focused on a seventh-grader interviewed by police and school officials about a residential break-in. The 13-year-old was not given a chance to phone home before he was taken to a closed-door school conference room for questioning or told at the outset that he was free to leave. There were no Miranda warnings about his right not to talk and to have a lawyer.
In the weeks since the ruling, lawyers, school leaders and advocates have begun to weigh how the ruling could reshape student questioning. Many experts expect more Miranda-style warnings from police — and more caution from educators.
The ruling also could prompt more police in schools to call parents before questioning, said lawyer Ken Schmetterer, who wrote a brief on the case for the American Bar Association. “It’s a very significant decision for kids,” he said, noting that the court recognized that children are more easily coerced and impulsive than adults, less likely to foresee the implications of their actions and more likely to make false confessions.
But some predict complications.
“I’m afraid it signals a sea change in what was, if not a perfect rule, an easy-to-understand rule,” said Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. Many in law enforcement, he said, will now wonder: “Should we read every 13-year-old his rights?”
Only sworn police are required to give Miranda warnings — and only if a suspect is in police custody, which is defined as when a “reasonable person” would not feel free to leave police questioning. Under the ruling, age is now part of that custody determination.
Morrogh said he would not be surprised to see more Miranda warnings in Fairfax schools but is recommending a case-by-case approach. In practice, he said, it may be so confusing that he will need a “Bat phone” to dispense advice.
Another possible effect, he said, is more “separation” between questioning by educators and questioning by police. Educators and other staff members are not required to give Miranda warnings.
“It’s a bit of a knuckleball that the high court has thrown at us,” he said.
In Alexandria, Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said he has started briefing police. Especially in circumstances that resemble the court case, with school-based questioning and no parental notification, Sengel has advised: “Be careful, and give us a call first.”
Experts said the ruling points to the complex role of police on campus.
Sometimes officers visit schools to question students. But often schools have their own police force or use sworn police as “school resource officers” who enforce laws, mentor students and teach safety. Fairfax has 51 such officers, including the one who was at Hughes Middle.
Nationally, there are 14,000 to 15,000 school resource officers — a number that has doubled since the late 1990s, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
When officers encounter a potential Miranda situation, much will depend on how the questioning unfolds, said Paul Holland, a Seattle University law professor. In an interview behind a closed door, he said, “they’d be safer to issue Miranda warnings.” A casual exchange in a hallway, he said, might not require the same precaution.