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Supreme Court to hear cases involving students' rights

February 24, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Should a social worker or law enforcement officer have to get a warrant before questioning a child at school about suspected abuse? Or should they have to give a Miranda warning to a minor being interviewed at a school about suspicions he committed a crime?

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear two cases next month that will answer those questions. North Dakota has filed a friend of the court brief in support of one of them.

In the first case, Camreta v. Greene, a 9-year-old, developmentally delayed girl was interviewed in 2003 at her Bend, Ore., school by a social worker and sheriff's deputy about allegations that her father had molested her. The girl repeatedly denied that her father had hurt her. Eventually, after two hours of questioning, she told the social worker what she thought he wanted to hear so she wouldn't miss the school bus. The girl and her sister were taken into foster care for three weeks. Eventually the charges against her father were dropped, though he took a plea deal in another case involving alleged abuse of his employer's 7-year-old son. The girl's mother sued the social worker and the sheriff's deputy, alleging that the interview violated her daughter's Fourth Amendment rights to avoid unreasonable search and seizure. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the girl's constitutional rights were violated but that the social worker and sheriff's deputy had immunity because the law wasn't clear at the time. The sheriff's deputy and social worker appealed the decision to the Supreme Court because they said the ruling will tie the hands of law enforcement and social workers investigating future abuse cases. North Dakota has filed a brief in support of the argument made by the sheriff's deputy and social worker.

The second case, J.D.P. v. North Carolina, involved a 13-year-old boy, also developmentally delayed, who was suspected of burglary and questioned in school by a police officer with only his assistant principal also present. He was never advised of his right to remain silent or to have his parents present at the interview or told he was free to leave. He admitted to the burglary after his principal urged him to "do the right thing." The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that he was never actually in custody during the interview at the school. His lawyers have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments in that case will be held at the end of March.

The Supreme Court rarely deals with the juvenile justice system, so these cases are pretty significant for children's rights. In the boy's case, I suppose you could argue that the ends justified the means since he apparently eventually admitted his guilt. On the other hand, I personally question how fair it is to question a seventh-grader about a crime without his having a lawyer or at least a parent present. Most kids would not believe they were free to leave under those circumstances and might well believe that the principal was there to help them, not to gather information for the police. How many young teens will have enough savvy or knowledge of the law to know that they can remain silent or anything they say under those circumstances can be used against them? Shame on the assistant principal who allowed that interview and pressured the kid to confess.

The case of the 9-year-old girl is a lot more troubling. Children must be protected from abuse and it's undeniable that it is harder to interview a child when the parents might have something to do with possible abuse. That's why social workers often go to public schools, where children might feel safer and parents can't intervene, to interview children. But there's also something to be said for privacy rights, which shouldn't stop at the schoolhouse door.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to require that a social worker and law enforcement officer first get permission from a parent or go to a judge for a search warrant unless it's a case where the child is in imminent danger or getting a warrant would put the child at more risk of harm. A requirement for a search warrant in most cases would add an extra layer of protection for children's and parental rights and wouldn't stop police from interviewing children when they really need to.

The circumstances under which the interviews are conducted should be more regulated, too. The child in this case told the social worker she'd been abused only after two hours of persistent questioning in the presence of an armed sheriff's deputy, after she spotted the buses lining up outside her office window and was in a panic that she wouldn't be able to go home. At a minimum such interviews should be taped and the child should have been permitted to have someone she knew and trusted with her. The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruled that the way in which she was questioned was a violation of her rights and I'd have to agree.

Hopefully the Supreme Court will rule wisely in these cases and give law enforcement better direction about how they should conduct interviews with children when they are in public schools, a place they are legally required to be during the school day and which they are not free to leave.


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