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.
Historically, courts have given educators leeway to ensure safe and orderly schools. The assumption, said Perry Zirkel, an education law professor at Lehigh University, has been that school officials are acting in children’s best interests.
But the rising number of police officers and security staff members in schools, especially after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, has led to questions about juvenile rights.
Some suggest that new district policies or state laws will be proposed as a result of the court ruling.
And in some areas, police say, Miranda warnings in schools are nothing new.
In Charlottesville, police Lt. Ronnie Roberts said school resource officers have advised students of Miranda rights during interrogations for as long as he can recall. “Some people keep talking,” Roberts said, “and some don’t.”
The irony is that many children don’t understand the language or meaning of the warnings, said Tamar R. Birckhead, who teaches at the University of North Carolina law school. “In most cases, when Miranda warnings are given, juveniles talk anyway,” she said.
In the Fairfax episode, county schools spokesman Paul Regnier said, the ruling was not germane because the case was disciplinary, not criminal. The student was suspended for two days for “behavior that disrupted the school environment.”
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the ruling applies if police are involved in a case with criminal possibilities. “What if the student had revealed he had a significant amount of drugs or had sold drugs?” he asked.
One of the proposals that failed would have required that parents be notified in advance of questioning for serious offenses when no urgent safety issues exist. Another would have required Miranda-like warnings in certain circumstances.
In the wake of the court ruling, some board members want to revive the discussion. But member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) predicted “very minimal effect.” School resource officers are focused on campus safety, not prosecution, he said.
Helen Russell, whose daughter, Hayley, then 13, was suspended from a Fairfax school last year for more than seven weeks for stowing prescription acne pills in her locker, said Miranda rights would have been helpful.
The teen was questioned by four adults, including a school resource officer, then taken to a room to write a statement, her family said. Her mother was called afterward.
“I think it would have made Hayley a little less terrified and in control knowing she had the right to remain silent and could have had an advocate with her through the process,” Russell said.
In Reston, Dawn Daugherty was so upset about the way her son had been questioned at Hughes Middle — and in her view, intimidated into a confession — that she wrote four members of the School Board.
Daugherty said her son recounted the events in detail: Being interviewed by an assistant principal and a school resource officer who carried a gun. Taken to another room to write a statement. Kept there an hour. Told his statement was too short.
She was called after her son wrote the statement.
“If he could have, I think he would have said he didn’t want to say anything without me there,” Daugherty said.
When asked about Daugherty’s account, Fairfax officials expressed concern and investigated her allegations. They provided The Washington Post with a detailed written response from Margaret Barnes, the assistant principal in the episode.
Fairfax police said they received no complaint in the case.
Barnes wrote that by the time she interviewed Daugherty’s son, two or three of the other boys accused had said he was part of the incident.
Daugherty’s son “was never ordered to admit anything,” Barnes wrote. “There were no lies, intimidations, or threats.” The school resource officer “never said anything about making things difficult” or “jail time,” she wrote.
Barnes wrote that she brought the officer into the room to have another adult present while she searched the boy. “We talked to [him] about how serious this was,” she wrote.
Fairfax officials said that Barnes was the primary interviewer and that she could not recall whether the school resource officer asked questions.
Barnes said she never told the boy that his written statement was too short: “I asked him if he was sure that was all he wanted to write.”
The off-campus incident was school-related, Barnes wrote, because six students had a conversation that “suggested they were going to be high or bring marijuana to school. It would be incredibly irresponsible of us as school officials not to respond to an incident of this nature.”
The day it happened, Daugherty said, her son was “terrified” and reminded of a class essay he wrote in April. His topic was the Fifth Amendment, which he argued was very important “because without it, people would be sending themselves to jail in cases for which they had not meant to do so.”