Whenever police question a person in custody, they’re required to inform them of the rights they have while being interrogated. This information comes in the form of a Miranda warning, which generally starts with the words “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law…” But when it comes to students in school, sometimes it’s not clear when the warning should be issued. One such case has made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
In the spring of 2009, a Nelson County High School teacher found an empty prescription pain pill bottle in a school bathroom. The bottle had the name of a student on it. The student, referred to in court documents by the letters N.C. because he’s a minor, was removed from class by the school’s resource officer, Nelson County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Campbell. Officer Campbell took the student to assistant principal Michael Glass’s office for questioning. While in Glass’s office, N.C. admitted to having the pills and giving at least one to another student, a crime which he was later convicted of based on his admission. N.C. argues that his statement to Glass and Campbell should have been suppressed during his trial because he did not receive a Miranda warning, despite considering himself to be in custody. The court now has to decide if a student being questioned by a school administrator and resource officer is considered to be in custody. The Department of Public Advocacy’s Tim Arnold says it makes sense that a student being questioned would feel compelled to obey.
“We are conditioned from the time we are 5 years old at the very least to recognize school as an environment where we are expected to comply with the directives of school officials and there will be consequences if we don’t comply.”
Arnold says that makes it important to set rules and policies that make it clear when a particular incident is being addressed by the school or by law enforcement. Kentucky Association of School Administrators Executive Director Wayne Young says the problem is that sometimes an administrator thinks they’re dealing with a simple school discipline issue.
“Some cases don’t come to them as criminal matters but as you develop evidence and proof of what happened, you may uncover some criminal act underlying something.”
Young says requiring administrators to determine if a student may eventually be prosecuted goes beyond the scope of their position.
“Let’s let principals do their job and if it needs to be turned over to law enforcement then do that, but let’s not make principals the, you know, enforcers of the constitutional requirement to advise people of their rights if they’re being prosecuted.”
Hopkins County Attorney Todd P’Pool is responsible for prosecuting juvenile cases in his county. P’Pool says he’s dealt with cases similar to this one, and he thinks it’s reasonable to apply less stringent standards for due process to preserve the safety of other students.
“Most students in Kentucky Public Schools understand that they’re subject to questioning and they’re subject to searches and seizures when they’re on school property. And that’s a different standard again than if you’re just a citizen on the street being investigated by police.”
But DPA attorney Tim Arnold says while it’s true that students are subject to different rules while at school, school officials should avoid exercising their authority over students beyond the usual school discipline and educational matters.
“Police have plenty of resources already to interrogate people, and they do it all the time. There’s no reason why we need to bring that into the school setting for the purposes of serving that enforcement need.”
Both sides agree that whatever decision the court makes in the case, school discipline procedures will definitely be affected. Arnold says not informing students when they could be facing prosecution could prevent them from talking to administrators about other problems. But County Attorney
P’Pool says expanding due process requirements for students could end up protecting guilty students as well. But for one Nelson County student, the decision has another aspect. He’s waiting to see if he’ll spend 45 days in jail.