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Policy adopted for police, student interaction

Seeking to balance public safety along with parent and student rights, the Suffolk School Board recently adopted an ordinance guiding how police and school resource officers interact with students during an investigation.

The board voted 7-0 in favor of the policy change at its April 11 meeting, after hearing concerns from a local lawyer who will be affected by it.

School resource officers investigating a school-related incident, or anything that could affect the safety of students or school staff, can now interview a student without parental permission, according to the adopted ordinance.

It cited examples of such incidents, including fights between students that could result in retaliation at school, threats by a student against another student or school staff member, gang-related offenses such as assault, battery and intimidation, or possessing drugs or weapons on school property.

In the amended ordinance, the board will also allow for law enforcement to interview a student who is a suspect or the subject of a criminal investigation with a parent’s consent, “unless extenuating circumstances dictate that this not be done.”

Those extenuating circumstances include:

  • A risk that a delay in proceeding with the interview may pose an imminent danger to the health or safety of students, school employees or other people in the community;
  • The student’s parents or guardians are suspected of serious criminal activity or of co-involvement with the student in criminal activity;
  • Law enforcement authorities need to act promptly to prevent destruction of evidence of a serious crime, or flight from the jurisdiction by a person suspected of criminal activity.

If a parent or guardian is reached and wants to be present at the interview, then law enforcement must delay it until that person arrives.

If a parent or guardian is not present, the adopted policy states that the school official is to stay in the room with law enforcement and the student during the interview.

A lawyer from the Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office who specializes in crimes against children raised a concern with the new policy during a public comment session at the School Board meeting.

“That creates a problem for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and the police,” said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney T. Marie Walls. “Because ultimately, what it will do is make school personnel witnesses in a case.”

Walls said she would like the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to sit down with the School Board and school administration to address issues related to the ordinance and come to a resolution that protects everyone’s interests, including the students, and that would be in line with recently adopted state legislation.

A bill that passed the most recent General Assembly session and was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam would establish the Virginia Center for Schools and Campus Safety and create a memorandum of understanding between the director of the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the superintendent of public instruction “to ensure collaboration and coordination in the roles and responsibilities in areas of mutual concern, such as school safety audits and crime prevention.”

Walls said her concern was that if an officer comes to a school to speak to a student, and the principal follows a procedure that doesn’t allow for that, it could potentially be obstruction of justice.

“Understand that no one wants to get into that dialogue where we become, not partners in education, but where we become opposed to each other,” Walls said. “That doesn’t help the students. It doesn’t help the police, and it doesn’t help my office.”

The adopted ordinance states that law enforcement wanting to interview a student at school about a school-related incident for law enforcement purposes must contact a principal or other designated school official and state the reason for the interview request.

The ordinance says the school official must request to see subpoenas, warrants or court orders — if there are any — to support the interview request and verify the identity of the law enforcement official.

If a student is not a suspect, but law enforcement wants to interview that person as a witness to an incident on or off school property, the school official can contact a parent or guardian, but is not required to do that, according to the adopted policy. However, if the student becomes a suspect during the interview, law enforcement must disclose that to the school official. The school official “should require” that the interview be stopped and continued at the police department, or halted until a parent or guardian is notified, barring extenuating circumstances.

Students, according to the policy, can also refuse to speak to law enforcement officials on school grounds.

The previous policy called for the principal to be contacted prior to any questioning of a student, and that a school official should make a reasonable effort to contact the parent or guardian. If that person was not able to be present, then the principal or designee had to be present at the interrogation.

Policies governing law enforcement and student interactions appear to be similar in Portsmouth and Virginia Beach public school divisions.

Portsmouth Public School Division policy states that, if a student needs to be questioned by law enforcement, that the school’s principal is contacted immediately, and that “reasonable” efforts are made to contact the parent or guardian to have that person present during questioning. If that person cannot be present, “then the principal or principal’s designee is present throughout the interrogation.”

In the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Interactions with Juveniles Field Guide, it says police officers should not use school time to interview students unless the alleged offense took place on school property, school safety would be compromised by not taking immediate action, “swift police action would be impeded,” or the student is a victim — or relative of a victim — of child abuse or neglect.

In the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ Virginia School-Law Enforcement Partnership Guide from May 2017, it states that “the investigation and questioning of students during school hours or at school events should be limited to situations where the investigation is related to suspected criminal activity.”

Investigations not related to alleged offenses on school grounds should happen only when delaying it could result in endangering anyone, the possible destruction of evidence or if the student suspected of a crime could flee from the area, the guide says. According to the guide, the student can halt questioning by law enforcement at any time.

School Board attorney Wendell Waller said prior to the vote that the amended ordinance balances the rights of students and law enforcement.

“The policy that is in front of you balances public safety and student rights,” Waller said. “And I think that it something that everyone should be concerned about.”

Waller said the policy addresses interviews by law enforcement officials about school-related incidents, but it prohibits interviews on non-school-related incidents. It gives the school authority to contact parents or guardians for the interview, Waller said.

“The police may have that same procedure,” Waller said, “but these students are in the care of Suffolk Public Schools. And so, I believe the school division should ensure that parents are notified. I think that if a parent is not notified and their child is interviewed, the parent is not going to be upset with the police, they’re going to be upset with the school.”