The Supreme Court on School Interrogations and Parental (Dis)empowerment

The Supreme Court has in the past several weeks granted certiorari in two cases involving the rights of juveniles in police interrogations in the school setting.  In Greene v. Camreta, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the interrogation of a juvenile by police authorities in the school setting in the absence of a warrant, court order, exigent circumstances, or parental consent, was an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  In the Matter of J.D.B., the Supreme Court of North Carolina held that a 13 year old burglary suspect who was interrogated by police officials in his school without parental notification and consent, was not in custody, and thus he was not entitled to have Miranda warnings read to him.   By agreeing to hear both J.D.B. and Greene in this term, the Supreme Court is undoubtedly seeking to clarify the legal standards surrounding the increasing law enforcement presence in public schools.   However, on a broader level, the Court is also entering into the societal discussion regarding the role of the public school in American democracy.  As it is increasingly accepted that the school is becoming the central societal institution, the lack of parental notification for the interrogations in Greene and Camreta is of particular concern.  The marginalization of parental involvement in such issues of morality and law may stem from a growing suspicion regarding the rearing abilities of parents.  If the Supreme Court does not elevate the right of parental involvement in school interrogations to Constitutional concern, then it will be throwing judicial weight to society’s growing cynicism toward the ability of parents, especially in challenging urban contexts, to manifest parental responsibility.

In Greene, the father of the juvenile public school student S.G. was suspected of sexual abuse.  As part of the criminal investigation of S.G.’s father, an Oregon Department of Human Services caseworker named Camreta, and a Deputy Sherriff named Alford, visited S.G.’s elementary school to interview her regarding her father’s potentially criminal activities.  S.G. was removed from her classroom and she was interviewed by Camreta and Alford for two hours in a separate room.  S.G.’s father and mother were not notified of this interview, and their consent was not sought.  In holding the interrogation to be an unconstitutional seizure, the Ninth Circuit Court distinguished the case from the 1985 Supreme Court case New Jersey v. T.L.O.  In T.L.O., the Court outlined an exception to the warrant requirement for Fourth Amendment searches and seizures in public schools, due to the lower expectation of privacy of elementary and secondary education students, and due to the disciplinary needs of school administration.  The Court held that not only do school officials not need a warrant for a search or seizure, but they also need reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, that a school rule has been violated to constitutionally justify a search or seizure.

Yet T.L.O. did not clarify whether this more forgiving standard applied to Fourth Amendment activities by the police pursuant to a criminal investigation, or simply to searches by school administrators reasonably suspecting a violation of school rule.  It is perhaps the necessity to clarify this issue that constitutes one reason the Supreme Court granted certiorari.  The Ninth Circuit in Greene held squarely that the warrant requirement remains for Fourth Amendment police activities in the school pursuant to a criminal investigation.   The Court in Greene held that such an interrogation absent “a warrant, a court order, exigent circumstances, or parental consent” is unconstitutional.  Yet the Court inked disappointingly little analysis on the parental consent/notification issue and did not clarify if the attainment of a warrant would be constitutionally sufficient even if there was no parental consent/notification.

In J.B.D., a thirteen year old special education student was suspected of burglary.  J.B.D. was interrogated at his school by Police Investigator DiConstanzo in the presence of the Assistant Principle and two other school staff members.  The interview took place in a room with the unlocked door closed.  J.B.D. was not read Miranda warnings and he confessed to the crime during the interrogation.  J.B.D.’s parents were not notified of the interrogation, and their consent was not sought.  A suspect has a right to Miranda warnings when he/she is subject to custodial interrogation by the police.   The North Carolina Supreme Court in J.B.D. emphasized in its ruling that the custody standard is objective.   A suspect has a right to Miranda warnings when a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would not fee free to leave.  Thus, in finding that J.B.D. was not in custody the court stated that his age, special education classification, and–presumably–the lack of parental notification and presence, were not relevant to the reasonable person analysis.

The J.B.D. court refers to the 2004 Supreme Court case Yarborough v. Alvarado as “persuasive” in its rejection of the consideration of age in the reasonable person custody standard, even as it acknowledges that the Alvarado holding regarded the standard for habeas corpus review, and is thus not binding precedent on the custody standard.   But although the Alvarado opinion outlines a much more nuanced discussion of the custody reasonable person standard, neither Alvarado nor J.B.D. seem to understand the interplay of the following distinctions:  1) A truly subjective standard involves the actual mindset of the particular subject (Alvarado does delineate this understanding).  2)  A “contextually objective” standard could look to the beliefs of a reasonable person with similar characteristics.  Thus, in J.B.D.’s circumstances, the standard could be based upon the perception of a reasonable 13 year old  student in school whose parent is not present.  Contrary to language in Alvarado, this would not place the police in the untenable situation of not having a clear standard due to a suspect’s “frailties and idiosyncrasies.”  Police could, with minimal training, gain an understanding of the psychological pressures of thirteen year old public school students without a parent present.  3) A completely objective disembodied reasonable person cannot exist except, as critical theory would point out, as an hermeneutical projection of a particular judge’s existential situation.

And the consideration of parental notification as constitutionally significant for the custody standard, as well as in the context of Fourth Amendment school searches and seizures, is paramount.  The failure to do so will create a constitutional incentive for police authorities to choose to partner with schools as the first choice venue for criminal investigation.  Such a partnership in contravention of parental involvement, authority, and responsibility will provide unhealthy influence to a growing vision of the school in society as the central institution poised to make up for parental short-comings.  A strong body of research indicates that socio-economic factors outside of the school have much to do with the academic under-performance of dis-empowered minority groups, and that parents of low-income minority students are disproportionately disengaged from the educational process.  Thus, educational reformist are increasingly emphasizing the necessity for schools to perform traditionally familial functions such as instilling habits and values, providing extended instruction, homework oversight, nutrition instruction and exercise, and working as outreach to engage parents themselves in the educational process.  The reformulation of the school model as the primary democratic institution–replacing not only the family, but religious and civil institutions–may be necessary.  But to do so without a continuing firm value on parental responsibility threatens to undermine the deepest foundations of society.

If the Supreme Court were to decide Greene and J.B.D. in a manner removing the right of parental involvement in school interrogations, it would simultaneously give jurisprudential voice to the growing trend to give up on parental responsibility in the realm of morals and education.  As other institutions traditionally providing societal glue continue to break down, the school is being seen as the epicenter for community renewal.  However, such renewal must continue to not only support, but to expect, parental and familial responsibility.  When schools, law enforcement, politicians, and the Constitution all throw their hands in the air over frustration with the family’s inability to promote morals, discipline, community and educational excellence, then our democracy gives up on the societal unit which has always provided the foundation for human flourishing.  When we loose all expectations, and begin to abandon hope for the responsibility of the family, we may have begun to crumble beyond repair.

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