“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.