Policy changed for questioning of students by school authorities

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Several weeks ago, I presented the first of two recent policy changes at the San Dieguito Union High School District, on “Discipline” – and promised a discussion the following week of the second policy change, “Questioning by Law Enforcement.” That scheduled column was pre-empted after I discovered an error on San Dieguito tax bills, which became the subject of several, more pressing columns.

To now return to the policy change issue, the new policy on Questioning by Law Enforcement (#5145.11) was updated to reflect a new court decision (Camreta v. Greene) “which vacated the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that required law enforcement to have parental consent, warrant, or other court order to interview a student in school absent exigent circumstances,” according to the board report.

This got my attention because I recently wrote about a case in Kentucky where the rights of a high school student were judged violated by the Kentucky Supreme Court after his school expelled him for possession and sale of a controlled substance.

In this case, according to the story in Education Week, “A high school student’s statements to an assistant principal about giving prescription pills to other students had to be suppressed in a criminal proceeding because the student had not been given a Miranda warning.”

The ruling stated that students must be read their Miranda rights before school district administrators can question them about possible illegal activity. But apparently Kentucky law does not travel past state boundaries.

Although the offense may be expellable, should students be routinely denied their basic Miranda rights when questioned by school authorities? And with only their accusers in the room, are they further denied fundamental rights when parents or attorneys are prohibited from being with them during questioning?

Miranda rights for students run head-on against the concept of in loco parentis, the Latin term for “in place of a parent.” In this application of the term, this refers to the legal right schools have to act as substitute parents when students are at school and under school supervision.

“Once a kid’s on campus, we become their parent and we become responsible for them,” said Rick Ayala, SDUHSD’s director of pupil services and alternative programs. This policy gives schools the right to interrogate students and “to allow a police officer to come in and question a kid,” he said.

After we discussed the issue, Ayala said he checked with school district lawyers who told him that school officials are indeed able to question kids without first informing their parents.

“According to counsel, it is legal and there are no court decisions that have changed that,” he said. “We can interview kids and bring in law enforcement and not have to notify parents.”

If the student is arrested, however, “we try to call the parents and let them know where they’re at and what the situation is,” he said.

But in loco parentis does not extend to violations of civil liberties, so gray areas exist, as evidenced by the afore-mentioned phrase in the San Dieguito policy which states “… absent exigent circumstances.”

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