Double Take: Students’ rights don’t end at school doors

Dear Dr. Wes and Gabe:

My high school student recently got into trouble at school. The resource officer was involved and somehow before he knew it, my son confessed to a crime. I want him to be held responsible for his actions, but I don’t feel his rights were respected. He doesn’t think of the SRO as a policeman. Can you talk about this so other parents and teenagers know?

Wes: Schools perform such a difficult balancing act these days that they can’t seem to satisfy anyone. Society demands they police everything teens do from parking lot conduct to social media expression.

In attempting to respond to these demands and protect students from serious security issues, schools have increasingly hired School Resource Officers (SROs). Some kids think of SROs as being like mall cops — security guards without influence beyond the walls of the school. That’s not the case, as your son found out. SROs are genuine police.

Double Take columnists Gabe Magee and Dr. Wes Crenshaw

Any student involved in a disciplinary action that could include a criminal charge has the same constitutional rights as an adult, most notably the right to remain silent. We’ve all seen a hundred TV shows where the suspect is pressured into a confession before he or she is actually arrested. Yet, when teens are intimidated they often incriminate themselves, which is exactly the goal of interrogation. In that kind of situation, parents should tell children never to say anything to school officials without a parent present, and parents should not allow an interview that involves an SRO without involving an attorney.

I’m not suggesting that kids should get away with committing crimes at school. However, the foundation of criminal justice is our Constitution and in meting out justice it just happens to afford everyone the right to due process. That right doesn’t end at the schoolhouse door. That’s unpopular advice with law enforcement and school administration whenever we hand it out, but it is as true as the red, white and blue.

Gabe: This is a hard situation to analyze because we can’t know what exactly was said between the SRO and your son. If your son approached the SRO with a confession, it’s hard to argue that he was being coerced or deceived. But if the SRO convinced him to tell the story without reminding him that he’s a police officer, there is a problem. Although undercover officers keep their identities secret, an SROs status as law enforcement should be known by all.

I think everyone is a little at fault here. Though the SRO should be someone that the students at a high school should trust, they should also know that telling the SRO anything is literally telling it to a police officer. It isn’t that hard for a high school student to take a look at his surroundings and ponder where potentials pratfalls are.

That said, this situation may not be obvious to everyone, which is where parents come in. I like to think of parents as the polishers of a fine piece of silverware. Overall, the silverware is pretty good as it is and can get food into your mouth. We’re born to be functioning members of society, but we’re not finished until our parents bring out the best in us by educating us on how to find and avoid pratfalls around us.

In attending a private school, many of my peers and I are friends with our teachers and we often talk about things unrelated to school. It might be easy to mistake that mutual trust for lack of accountability. I wouldn’t talk blatantly about plagiarism with my teacher if I committed it, because I know that, friendly or not, they’re obligated to take action as part of their job descriptions. The same goes for SROs, except their job descriptions are not as widely known as a teacher’s. If it were, blatant disregard for the constitutional rights of students might become less prevalent.

Though teen rights are guaranteed, that doesn’t mean people won’t try to convince them otherwise. Be sure teens know their rights, respect the rights of others and do not let anyone tell them differently.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.