When Police Interrogate Children

Article by Wendy McElroy.
On its surface, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court may seem to be legally trivial; it’s about a juvenile who stole from neighborhood houses. But J.D.B. v. North Carolina could redefine both the law’s “reasonable person” standard and what it means to be in custody. The case is a bellwether on the status of children’s rights and how far America has slid into a police state.

The case hinges on how far the police can exert their authority over grade-school students with the active cooperation of school officials but without the knowledge or consent of custodial adults. Specifically, are the rights of a school child violated if police interrogate him about criminal activity without a custodian or attorney present and without reading him his Miranda rights?

In recent years police have increasingly exerted authority over grade-school children. In 1998 the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Part Q, Title I) was amended to create active “collaboration” between police departments or agencies and “school and community-based organizations.” Since then, public schools have increasingly come to resemble prisons, with metal detectors, locker searches, and zero-tolerance policies under which students can be suspended for even speaking of violence.

Police in Grade Schools

School resource officers are commonplace in grade schools, screening children for firearms and drugs, controlling access, and squelching violence. Typically a police department assigns responsibility for each school to a particular officer who works closely with school administrators. A 2004 report published in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum stated that “[o]n any given day, there are more than 3,800 school resource officers (SROs) on duty in the United States.” (PDF download available here.)

Armed officers patrolling grade-school corridors have been justified in the name of protecting children. If that was a sincere motivation, there seems to have been severe “mission drift,” with children being treated as criminals for nonviolent or even trivial offenses. Although no aggregate statistics exist on how often schools call the police to deal with students throwing temper tantrums or sketching guns in class, media stories now abound about police arresting grade-school children for such offenses.

To date, the rights of criminalized school children and their parents have not been well established. J.D.B. v. North Carolina has the potential of providing some clarity.

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