Teacher, May I Plead the Fifth?

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In January 2008, a school resource officer—a policeman assigned to a schoolnamed David Pritchett brought eight-year-old Anthony J. Hunt into the reading lab at Shields Elementary School in Lewes, Delaware. He planned to question him about a missing dollar, stolen from an autistic student on the bus that morning. Pritchett was almost certain that the student already waiting in the room, a fifth-grader named AB in court papers, had stolen it. Pritchett had trouble getting him to confess.

After sitting Hunt down and closing the door, Pritchett began his interrogation. He warned the boys against lying and told them about Stevenson House, a youth detention center where “people are mean” and where Hunt would not be able to see his siblings. Hunt began to cry, after which AB confessed to stealing the dollar. Two years later, Hunt’s mother sued the state, and three years after that the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in her son’s favor, agreeing that Hunt’s Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unreasonable seizures had been violated.

The school-based interrogation of students by police officers and administrators is a new and little-studied event, arising out of dramatic changes in the way punishment is handled in many public schools across the country. Starting in the mid-1990s, federal funding and a heightened suspicion of juveniles led to a large increase in the number of law-enforcement officials with a regular presence in schools. In 1975, only 1 percent of U.S. public schools had an officer stationed inside them. By the 2007-2008 school year, 40 percent did. In schools, police regularly make arrests and give citations, often for minor infractions. To build cases against the young people they arrest, as with adults, police seek confessions because, among other reasons, they speed up investigations. To help elicit those confessions, police often employ systematized questioning tactics that lead to remarkably high rates of self-incrimination. While there have been few studies explaining whether these interrogation methods are used in schools, available information suggests that when officers do question students, they treat them much like adults.

 

The Reid technique is the most influential method of evidence-gathering and involves three steps: analysis of evidence, interviews to gather information, and interrogations. During interrogations, the Reid technique instructs officers to use what social psychologists call maximization and minimization techniques. Maximization tactics involve confronting a suspect to raise anxiety (“Quit lying to me”), while minimization techniques involve commiserating with a suspect to reduce their feelings of guilt (“I can really understand how much pressure you were under that day”). In a 2012 study of interrogations of around 300 juveniles charged with felonies in Minnesota—the largest such empirical study available—University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld found that, after suspects waived their Miranda rights, officers used maximization techniques in 69 percent of cases and minimization techniques in 15 percent. Seven percent of all the interrogations studied were performed in schools. Lying, deceit, and other confrontational tactics—informing suspects of the jail time they could face, bringing up possible punishment of family members—are legal, provided no specific promises of punishment or leniency are made.

Those confrontational tactics—one-man performances of the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine—are generally employed after a suspect has waived their Miranda rights, which almost always happens. In the Minnesota study, 93 percent of juveniles gave them up. Juveniles waive at such high rates either because they do not understand the warning, do not grasp the gravity of their situation, want to tell their side of the story, or are terrified, says Feld. After they start to talk, confessions almost always follow (88 percent of the time in the Minnesota study), making the state’s case easy to put together and often leading to a quick plea bargain.

Recent court cases and reports from North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, California, and Georgia show evidence of police or administrators using what critics label as coercive techniques. Joseph Buckley, president of Reid and Associates—the company that patented the Reid techniquesays that “without a doubt” some of the 20,000 officers his firm trains each year are assigned to schools, though he does not have specific figures. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) expects to enroll 3,500 to 4,000 officers and administrators in its basic program this year, which includes instruction in interrogations. A 2010 policy brief from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice found that NASRO courses “tend to emphasize technical training, such as the review of laws determining whether Miranda warning must be given” over psychological training; a 2009-2010 study of Massachusetts school resource officers reached a similar conclusion. Mo Canady, executive director of NASRO, says he has “no philosophical problems” with the Reid technique, though his organization doesn’t currently teach it.

The exact number of school-based interrogations that occur each year is unknown. Steven D. Campbell, sheriff of sparsely populated Nelson County, Kentucky, remembers sitting in on questionings of only a few students a year when he was the resource officer at a local high school. The figures are likely much higher in a place like Northwestern Senior High School in Miami, where there were around 650 suspensions last year. According to the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights organization, Florida had 13,780 arrests or referrals to law enforcement in 2011-2012, estimated as the most in the nation. The want for hard numbers is consistent with a general lack of data on school discipline issues. Through its Office for Civil Rights Data Collection, the Department of Education records figures on suspensions but not on interrogations.

 

When it is used, confrontational questioning has plenty of critics, especially when it’s used on juveniles. Most critics’ problems with the Reid technique and confrontational questions in general relate to what Drexel University psychology professor Naomi Goldstein calls the “power differential within the context of a police interrogation.” Buckley says that Reid and Associates teaches only what courts have approved—which helps officers obtain admissible statements—and company documents call for special caution when dealing with juveniles, such as advising not to use deception. 

Opponents argue, however, that despite being legal, confrontational questioning is still coercive. Psychological and neurological research shows that adolescents often overestimate positive outcomes for themselves, are impulsive, and tend to misunderstand the serious consequences that can result from a confession—conditions that can make self-incrimination more likely in a high-pressure environment. To guard against that, Feld recommends doing away with what a recent Harvard Law Review comment called the “manipulative techniques” of the Reid method. Both Feld and the Harvard Law Review comment support the PEACE model, which emphasizes cooperation over coercion and has been adopted with success in the United Kingdom.

Despite those criticisms, even some administrators are now being trained in interrogation techniques. In addition to the 20,000 officers it enrolls, Buckley says Reid and Associates teaches a one-day session to a few hundred administrators a year. NASRO strongly recommends school principals take its interrogation training; school administrators are not required to give Miranda warnings when they question students, even if they tell the police about evidence acquired during an interrogation. Critics of confrontational questioning are especially concerned with false confessions. Though they are believed to be rare and the Reid manual explicitly advises against situations known to have produced them, such as sessions that last several hours, research suggests juveniles are much more likely than adults to claim responsibility for a crime they didn’t commit.

For all the moral and legal complications they raise, confrontational interrogations are only one minor consequence amid many much more drastic consequences of the increased presence of police officers in schools. During the 2009-2010 school year, the Department of Education found that in 72,000 schools around 96,000 students were arrested, meaning the total arrests in the approximately 248,000 public schools in the United States was likely much higher. A January report from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others argues that most school-based arrests are for minor infractions, like truancy, and that minorities are affected disproportionately by them. The Advancement Project estimates that over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement are black or Hispanic. Minority children are more likely than white children to receive harsh punishment for the same infractions.

It seems likely that those numbers would not be significantly altered by a switch to the PEACE model. But proponents of a change say it’s the principle of the matter that’s at stake. The right against self-incrimination is protected by the Fifth Amendment, even though many adolescents, and even many adults, don’t understand that protection. The ACLU, American University’s Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, and other groups work to increase constitutional literacy in public schools, but none appear to be explicitly committed to ending confrontational school-based interrogations. The larger organizations working to reform school punishments are focused on rewriting school discipline codes to end arrests and referrals to law enforcement for minor offenses—maybe preventing a few interrogations in the process.

"Our nation has cultivated a narrative that we’re scared of children, we’re scared of teenagers, and so if you’re scared of them you don’t want to give them rights,” says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Giving someone their rights,” she says, “doesn’t undermine safety.”

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