Interrogating Minors In School

Children do silly things, especially teenagers. Consequences are inevitable and, for the most part, deserved. Those consequences, however, should not last a lifetime.

As a parent, I want my child to be protected in every way possible.

If the police suspect my child did something illegal, my first priority, like that of most parents, is still protecting my child’s future. (That actually happened on more than one occasion when my child was a rebellious teenager. Luckily, he knew what to do – keep his mouth shut and call a criminal attorney, which was me, of course.)

When it comes to police interrogations, school administration policies often prioritize the exact opposite of what we want.

The truth is…

While you’re hard at work, your underage child can be taken out of his or her class to be questioned by the police.

The crazy part?

Nobody has to get your permission before your child unwittingly waives his or her constitutional rights.

Every day, minors are questioned by police without their parents present and without their parents’ knowledge.

As juvenile lawyers, we want to inform the communities that we serve so that we can keep devastating things from happening to innocent people. In this article, we explain how schools expose juveniles to criminal liability and how juveniles can protect themselves from this very real danger.

Juvenile Police Interrogations: The Reference Point

Police Interrogate Minor In School

You may or may not be familiar with the startling facts involving the prosecution of Brendan Dassey. If you are not, you should watch the Netflix documentary. Brendan was accused and convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse.

Here are a few of the facts of his case:

1) Brendan was 16 years old;

2) He was a special education student;

3) He was interrogated by the police during school hours;

4) The police relentlessly interrogated him over the course of 48 hours;

5) No attorney or parent was present during the interrogations;

6) The police manipulated him and fed him facts from their investigation;

7) Ultimately, police extracted several “confessions” from him;

8) Many legal experts highly suspect those confessions to be 100% false; and

9) Brendan is currently 28 and is still in prison.

An initial ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals (Seventh Circuit) fell in line with the legal community’s belief that the confessions Brendan made were the result of undue coercion. As a result, the court vacated his convictions.

Where is he now?

After the court’s ruling, the government sought a review of the ruling by the entire Seventh Circuit (sitting en banc). The Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, voted 4-to-3 to reinstate Brendan’s convictions. Despite that initial ruling and all of the attention his case received, Brendan is still sitting in a prison cell.

What About The Supreme Court?

Brendan’s juvenile lawyers are challenging the voluntariness of his confession. His convictions were appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately, on June 25 of this year, the Supreme Court decided not to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision. They denied a writ of certiorari (Web Search this term).

This does not come at a big surprise because 7,000 to 8,000 cert petitions are filed each term, and the court grants certiorari and hears oral argument in only about 80. However, we had hopes that the Supreme Court would take up this case due to the very serious question of whether Brendan’s confession was coerced considering his age and intellectual and social disabilities.

What’s next?

Brendan’s lawyers have stated an intention to keep fighting, but the chance of gaining Brendan’s freedom appears bleak in light of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear his case.

Why should this matter to you?

Brendan may never be successful in getting his freedom back. Even if he is, he will never get back those 12+ years he has spent in prison.

He is 28 years old and has been in a prison cell since the age of 16—the day he was taken out of class and delivered over to the police.

How Police Interrogate Minors In School: The Process

Cop questioning underage students in Nashville school

A Common Situation

Although Brendan’s confessions and prosecution appear egregious, his case is far from uncommon. Specifically, the way in which police tirelessly interrogated Brendan without an attorney or parent present is far from unique. Every day, children are pulled from their classrooms, placed in intimidating situations, and pressured into implicating themselves in criminal acts.

Your Backyard: Middle TN Public Schools

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are notorious for “cooperating” with the police in their investigations and delivering your children to the police with the permission of school administrators. Indeed, school administrators often exert their power over students by removing them from class and making them available to the police.

The Scenario Often Plays Out as Follows…

A student comes under suspicion by the authorities. During school hours, a school administrator will go to the child’s classroom and call the child into the hallway. Upon exiting the classroom, the child finds the police waiting for him or her.

When adults encounter the police, they often feel compelled to explain their side of the story. Such encounters are even more difficult for children who are confronted by the police. This is especially true when the children are delivered to the police by their school resource officer, principal, teacher, or someone else in a position of authority at the school.

The police are then free to question the children at length without a parent present, and without notifying the parents. Although parents can protect their children in this setting, they are often not afforded such a reality if they are not even notified.

Juveniles' Legal Rights: School-Sponsored Police Interrogations

Nashville Cops Question Minor In School

Your Child’s Rights:

Criminal defendants are afforded a variety of constitutional rights, including, but not limited to:

1) The right to remain silent;
2) The right to have an attorney present during police interrogation; and
3) The right to only give voluntary statements, meaning statements that are not coerced by the police.

Can the police question children without notifying parents?

Juvenile criminal defendants are entitled to the same rights and privileges as adult criminal defendants. Police do have the right to question minors without notifying the parents. As with adults,  the minor must have the presence of mind to exercise their rights.

If police come to question a student, do Tennessee schools have an obligation to notify parents of that student?

No. In fact, the policy of Nashville schools is to cooperate with the police. However, those policies could shift if voters take issue with it in Nashville School board elections. The next election at the time of this posting is on August 2, 2018.

What Parents Need to Know:

Parents need to be aware of the limited protections that are given to their children in school and educate their children about their constitutional rights. Any statement to the police can and will be used against the children in juvenile or criminal proceedings. 

Whether on campus or at home, children have the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Child’s Legal Rights?

1) Take a moment to talk with your children about their rights and the potential consequences of not exercising them:

a. No child can be forced to speak to the police;
b. No child should ever put themselves in jeopardy regardless of innocence;
c. Thousands of innocent people are imprisoned because they had nothing to hide and just decided to talk;
d. Not talking rarely will get you in more trouble, however, choosing to talk can be very dangerous; and
e. Every child has the right to have an attorney present during a police interrogation.

2) Equip your children with the tools to protect themselves in this scenario and teach them how to react appropriately and instinctively. It could look something like this:

a. Let your children know that they have every right to **politely** excuse themselves from police questioning;
b. Let them know that being polite does not mean cooperating; and
c. If it is a choice between politeness and cooperation, they can stop being polite.

3) Provide pre-scripted responses such as:

a. “I need to get back to class”;
b. “I want to call my mom or dad first”;
c. “I’ve got schoolwork now, but can I schedule an appointment for us to talk later”;
d. “I don’t feel comfortable right now, can we set up a time to speak later?”; and
e. If being polite fails: “I’d like to have my attorney present.”

If you find your child under threat of prosecution, you should reach out to a juvenile lawyer immediately for guidance. The lawyers at Sherwood Boutique Litigation are happy to discuss any juvenile matters that you may have.

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