Student Interrogations at a Long Island High School

I recently wrote about “The Reid Technique,” an interrogation methodology taught to over a half million law enforcement and security employees, including those in the CIA, the DEA, and every U.S. military branch. I noted it’s now being taught to groups of secondary school administrators in New York and elsewhere.

In this post, I’ll outline a case I recently had which illustrates why it may not be such a good idea to train middle- and high-school staff in advanced interrogation techniques they’re likely, as in my case, to misapply.

So here is what happened. At about 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, I received a phone call from the father of a fourteen year old, 9th grade female student who had just undergone hours of intimidating interrogation at her school over having sent video that contained sexual content several weeks earlier from the cellphone of one student in the school, let’s call him Alfred, to two other students, whom we’ll call Bert and Charlie.

An assistant principal in the school apparently thought my client had used Alfred’s phone to send the offensive video to Bert and Charlie. Before I had a chance to investigate, my first thought was that if my client did send the offending video, then she was likely to be in real trouble. After some discussion I was confident that the school had no evidence that she sent the video and I also learned she made no admissions during her interrogation.

At the time I didn’t know for sure why they felt my client sent the video. But I felt it was fairly obvious that Alfred, knowing he was in trouble, was trying to deflect blame onto my client. Relieved, I said it was unlikely the school had much of a case against her.

But then we started discussing how the school had handled this issue. While an assistant principal no doubt has the right to ask a student a few questions when he has a reasonable belief the student is involved in a violation of school disciplinary rules or the law, I was genuinely shocked to hear my client’s account of what the school did.

She had been called out of class, sent to an administrative office, asked to write a statement about the incident, then permitted to return to class. Before long, she was called out of class again; this time her phone was taken away and she was put in a locked room, and kept there for close to three hours.

At no time did the assistant principal inform my client that she could call her parents, — despite the school district’s stated policy of allowing students being questioned by administrators to call their parents, except where health or safety issues justify not doing so.

Even though The Reid Technique warns against intimidating questioning of young juveniles, the interrogation was high-pressure (e.g., client was told if she could not remember a small detail, she would be held entirely responsible for the incident — intense questioning).

The assistant principal interrogation caused this 9th grader’s emotional state to deteriorate to the point where she broke down crying and asked to speak with her psychologist multiple times before her request was granted. She then called her therapist, who notified her parents. When her father called the assistant principal, he was told coming to the school would impede the investigation. He was nevertheless allowed to take his daughter home.

As soon became evident, even to the school, my client had nothing to do with the video. In fact, in a meeting with my client’s parents, the school admitted the only evidence they had was the statement of Alfred denying he sent the video (from his own phone) and blaming my client for the action. So, to be clear, the only facts that informed this assistant principal’s decision to detain a 9th grader for 3 hours and question her to the point they felt she needed to speak to her therapist was a statement of another student. A statement by a student who, when faced with the evidence that a video was sent from his phone, became desperate not to get in trouble, and implicated someone else.

The overreaching assistant principal who decided to play TV detective for an afternoon, by trying to coerce an admission from my client, with no real basis for his suspicions, remains in place, and may mistreat other students on similarly poor evidence.

My advice to parents with school-age children: tell them, if they’re questioned by someone at school, be very polite, be very respectful and simply say that they can’t make a statement until they speak with their parents.

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