Legal Matters

School officials have traditionally handled school disciplinary concerns, but in recent years law enforcement has become increasingly involved. With a growing presence of school resource officers (SROs), new legal dilemmas have arisen. For example, in one Midwest high school, the SRO and the assistant principal questioned a student about some sexual-related graffiti in the school. The questioning took place in a closed office with only the assistant principal; the student was not permitted to speak with his parents. After leaving the office, the assistant principal informed the SRO that the student confessed. The student was notified that he would be criminally charged. He was not given a Miranda warning—an explanation of personal rights—and litigation ensued. Similar scenarios are commonplace in schools.

Let’s explore emerging issues with Miranda requirements in a school setting.

Supreme Court Guidance

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statements made during police custody are admissible in trial only if the defendants were informed of their right to consult with an attorney and about their right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution before police questioning. These Miranda warnings apply to suspects under custodial interrogation and require that defendants understand their rights. Suspects must be told that they have “a right to remain silent, that any statement [they do] make may be used as evidence against [them], and that [they have] a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.” These warnings were designed to stop police from coercing suspects into confessing.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the use of the Miranda warning by extending it to students in custody who are questioned by police officers in schools. The court observed that young people are more susceptible to pressure and coercion and therefore might submit to police questioning more easily than adults, who may feel free to leave.

How Have Courts Applied This Precedent?

Despite the two Supreme Court decisions already noted, there are unanswered questions about whether a formal Miranda warning will suffice when given to a student, and what, if anything, an SRO must do to make sure children who are questioned do understand their rights. As a result, state supreme courts have reached sometimes inconsistent conclusions about whether students need to be given Miranda rights in schools.

To illustrate, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a seventh grader was not entitled to Miranda warnings in 2014. While a uniformed police officer was present, so were the assistant principal, the principal, and the student’s uncle. Considering the totality of circumstances, including the student’s age and the presence of a family member, the court concluded that the student was not technically held “in custody.”

However, the Supreme Court of Kentucky found that a student was in custody and thus entitled to Miranda warnings in 2013. In this instance, the student possessed a narcotic at school (hydrocodone, a pain reliever prescribed to him for removal of wisdom teeth), which he shared with another student. The student was expelled and convicted of a class D felony after the assistant principal and the SRO—who was also a deputy sheriff—escorted him from his classroom. The assistant principal then questioned him in the presence of the SRO. In ruling for the student, the court noted that the youth believed he was being questioned regarding a school disciplinary matter, not a criminal offense.

Likewise, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that Miranda warnings were necessary when a student was questioned by a municipal school police officer at school for possible vandalism in one of the classrooms. The court found that for purposes of the case, the officers were municipal police. Even though they worked for the school district, they had worn badges and uniforms during the questioning, and this interrogation led to police charges as opposed to school discipline.

Results From a Recent Case

In 2018, the Indiana State Supreme Court weighed in on this issue. The case involved a 13-year-old student who was accused of writing a bomb threat on his school’s bathroom wall with a marker. He wrote: “I will Got A bomb in the school Monday 8th 2016 not A Joke.” While in the vice principal’s office, he was questioned by the vice principal and encouraged to confess by one of the school resource officers. A second SRO asked him for a writing sample. When his mother arrived, her son explained that the threat was just a joke. The vice principal suspended the student (pending an expulsion). The SRO arrested the student and took him to a county juvenile detention center. The student’s family argued that he was in police custody and under police interrogation, which required his Miranda rights. School officials contended that he was free to leave.

The prosecutors argued that the student was delinquent for committing false reporting (a class A misdemeanor if committed by an adult) and institutional criminal mischief (a level 6 felony if committed by an adult). The attorney representing the student moved to have the admission suppressed. The trial court and the appellate court found that he was delinquent on both counts. The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts and threw out the student’s confession.

The state’s supreme court made a distinction between a custody-type setting in a school and other settings. According to the court, Miranda rights are especially important as students are more vulnerable to coercion. In this case, police officers were present and the student felt like he could not leave the room. Thus, school police must read students their Miranda rights when they are accused of crimes—even if other school officials are present.

Things to Consider

Principals are charged with the immense task of shielding students from dangers in school, and they often find themselves needing to question students about matters related to school safety. There is an exception to Miranda when there is immediate danger; trying to determine “custody” is more complicated. In making this determination, courts will consider the coercive power of law enforcement in each given situation. Also, the Miranda decision offers a “totality of the circumstances” test when trying to determine custody. In applying this test to the school context, one might consider the number of officers, the setting, the length of the interview, the age of the student, and the relationship between the parties when assessing whether a student is “in custody.”

Based on the discussion above, school officials must make a case-by-case analysis of all the evidence in determining whether a student is “in custody.” Currently, there are numerous cases wending their way through lower state and federal courts with somewhat different fact patterns and legal outcomes. It is critical, therefore, that you learn about cases that have been decided in your jurisdiction. We can, however, offer some general guidance to assist principals in making their decisions:

  1. Miranda rights apply to criminal charges, not to infractions that are solely disciplinary issues.
  2. There is an exception to the Miranda requirements in cases of immediate danger.
  3. A custodial interrogation occurs when a student reasonably believes that she or he is not free to leave and that the questioning is designed to obtain a confession.
  4. SROs will likely not be able to exempt themselves from constitutional requirements by having school officials conduct the questioning.

Jacqueline Stefkovich is a professor emeritus of education at Penn State University and co-author of Education Law: Cases and Materials. Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, a co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits, and the president of the Education Law Association.


References

B.A. v. State, 100 N.E. 3d 225, 230 (Ind. 2018).

D.Z. v. State, 100 N.E. 3d 246 (Ind. 2018).

J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011).

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966).

New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984).

N.C. v. Commonwealth, 396 S.W.3d 852 (KY 2013).

People v. N.A.S., 329 P.3d 285 (Colo. 2014).

In re R.H., 791 A.2d 331 (Pa. 2002).