Are Educators Also Police Officers? It’s Up to the Supreme Court

supremecourtIn March 2010, Ramona Whitley, a preschool teacher at a Head Start center in Cleveland, Ohio, noticed that one of her students, a 3-year-old boy (“L.C.”), had what appeared to be a bloodshot and bloodstained left eye. Whitely took a closer look at L.C. and observed what she later described as “red marks, like whips of some sort” across the boy’s face.

Alarmed, Whitley consulted with a colleague, Debra Jones, and together they asked L.C. how he received the marks and who, if anyone, gave them to him. The two educators, in their state-mandated role as reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect, submitted this information to law enforcement. The boyfriend of L.C.’s mother, Darius Clark, was soon arrested, charged and eventually convicted of felonious assault, child endangerment and domestic violence.

The steps Whitley and Jones took were not particularly different from what educators across the country do in similar circumstances. They did what was necessary to protect the safety of one of their students.

But five years later, the events of that day are the focus of an important legal case, Ohio v. Clark, now in front of the United States Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court case could change mandatory reporting and put teachers in law enforcement role

In 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned Clark’s conviction on the grounds that his Constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment to “face his accuser” (the so-called “confrontation clause”) had been violated. During the trial, L.C., a toddler, was deemed unsuitable to give live testimony. Instead, prosecutors relied on the testimony of the teachers, who recounted what L.C. had told them.

Clark’s attorneys argued that Whitley and Jones, in collecting information that helped identify the perpetrator, were acting not merely as mandatory reporters but also as law enforcement agents. As such, L.C.’s out-of-court statements to the educators should have been deemed “testimony” and therefore subject to cross-examination under the confrontation clause. The court agreed and tossed the conviction.

The state of Ohio has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, believing that the teachers’ valuable role as mandatory reporters and caregivers should not be breached, a position supported by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National School Boards Association. In November, the three groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

How the nine justices decide Ohio v. Clark (a ruling is expected before the end of June) could have a major impact on how school staff across the country interact with students, says Jason Walta, a senior attorney in the NEA’s general counsel’s office.

“First, it could undermine the mandatory reporting scheme by infusing it with these criminal investigation requirements,” Walta explains. “It’ll make it less protective and more confusing for teachers to comply with and make them second-guess how to carry out their responsibilities.”

Another concern is how any new criminal justice requirements become integrated into the everyday workings of a public school. Once the door is open to educators being categorized as law enforcement officers, where could that lead?

“Will educators have to read kids their Miranda rights when they’re investigating, for example, an incident of school vandalism?” Walta asks. “This is just a very bad fit for a school environment in which educators are only trying to see to it that their students are safe and are getting the education they need.”

The Court’s decision in Ohio v. Clark will hinge in part on whether the justices believe that the two teachers in Cleveland were acting more to identify the perpetrator than to remove the boy out of an immediate, dangerous situation. During oral arguments before the Court in early March, Ilana Eisenstein, Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, said that ensuring a child’s safety is always the purpose, regardless of the nature of the questions.

“Teachers aren’t in the business of prosecution. They’re not in the business of collecting evidence, and as such, this Court can generally presume that when they inquire of their students as to how they got hurt, they are asking out of a concern for welfare safety, and out of their normal, routine role, not as means of collecting evidence.”

If the Court disagrees, the effect on teacher-students interactions will be chllling, says Walta.

“The teacher isn’t going to be sure if they’re acting as a cop, and neither will the student.  A student may be reluctant to talk to a police officer about abuse, but would be comfortable talking to a teacher because they feel like the teacher is there to protect them. To confuse those two roles is something we should all be very concerned about.”

  • Maxine

    As a teacher I have had to report suspected abuse to our school counselor. The counselor then investigates to matter and reports to social services. Parents have tried to use teachers to help them with child custody battles and other legal issues. This puts teachers in precarious roles. It is difficult to play these duel roles.

    • OneHumbleAmerican

      Then don’t.

      • Christopher Dahle

        Are you suggesting that teachers have the right to refuse to carry out the insane, non- teaching responsibilities routinely handed them by non-teachers without a clue?
        Or,
        Are you saying that a person should not be a teacher unless they are willing to carry out the mandates of politicians and courts cheerfully without complaining or questioning the judgment of their betters?

        • OneHumbleAmerican

          Neither.
          I AM suggesting that teachers – as well as other stakeholders involved with this issue – take personal responsibility for their actions.

          • Anthony D. Simmons Sr.

            Yes there to are those teachers who may stretch the truth in some instances however, as a former law enforcement officer and now educator for twelve years I would much rather be the one to get it wrong than have my student(s) think I was not there for them when they really needed my help. To question “whether teachers are Peace Officers” should not be the concern when it comes to perhaps defenseless” students. It is my hope that this cases does not change anything , except the fact if the person was found “guilty” it remains as such and he remains behind bars!

      • Michelle Basham Kachler

        Sometimes we don’t have a choice!!!!!

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  • OneHumbleAmerican

    Don’t forget these roles: Teachers as liars. Teachers who start rumors. Kids who fantasize. Or, anyone who make questionable statements.

    Marks, however, and bruises can be seen – and may be photographed.

    The only thing teachers should be required to do is OBSERVE and REPORT – let a qualified investigator do the rest. End of story. To do more is how rumors and falsehoods get started – and innocent people “suspected.”

    Again – observe and report – is the TEACHER’s role – only.

    • Bob

      OneHumble hit the nail on the head. I observe way too many colleagues wanting to know everything about everything about what everybody is doing. Way too nosey. Observe and report. I am constantly amazed at how much many teachers low about kids, and its because they asked, not that the info was simply offered up. Teachers are not kids’ friends, but many want to be and especially young teachers want-need to be liked.

      • Ursula Y Lawson

        Caring is not being nosey. Keep in mind caring is help. Help equals the benefit of the person your helping. It doesn’t benefit other’s or yourself. It makes me sad that these teachers sometimes see warning signs of ignorance an kindness for that child could turn everything around. Kids aren’t dumb but they have to be directed correctly or someone including themselves could get hurt. Some want to be liked because they know that they are spending five days out the week with there students an besides who doesn’t want to be liked. How is the child going to listen an learn if they dislike there environment. In my opinion its one word that needs to be enforced, respect . If it’s not in the home they to can learn that in school. We need more than just the basic classes now. We need classes on bullying, respect , etc. That would make alot of ignorance cease as well as in the home. Abuse is bullying. Not to get off the topic but that’s the reason these kids were going to school an killing an injuring there fellow classmates an teacher’s because they were being bullied by others in the school an outside of school an felt that no one cared or loved them. On top of having no redirection. There are guidelines an boundaries but if counseling redirection classes were part of the curriculums I believe things would change. Kids would let another relative know, if abuse was going on in the home or someone that displays kindness an genuine concern. Not someone trying to cause a problem or division. Because you all know terrible things go on behind closed doors an it may or may not even be the parent. The news keeps us up to date with all those current events.

    • Ursula Y Lawson

      Yes I agree but what about children who are getting severly abused. I think it would be wise to bring it to the parents attention to see whats going on. It could possibly not even be the parent. Ignorant people who bully prey on other’s who they think no one cares about them. I really don’t like bullies of any sort an neither does Jehovah. I assure you that everyone is cared about even if it may seem like no one does. I’m one person who cares for everyone.

  • Christopher Dahle

    It is completely stupid that the NEA is opening up its message board to every wing nut and whacko on the planet by using Disqus. Only slightly less stupid than the action of the court in Ohio in deciding that teachers have to be cops too.

    • OneHumbleAmerican

      No, not stupid. Transparent. And that’s great.
      Need more information on Ohio court case, though, as no toddler may actually be cross-examined. That notion is so ludicrous – there must be a lot more to this story! LOL

    • Michelle Basham Kachler

      I think it is quite insightful. Now the public can see what we deal with. It is our legal obligation to report suspected abuse, but it now be illegal for a teacher to ask a couple questions to see if a mark on a child is abuse?

      • Christopher Dahle

        It troubles me, Michelle, that when I read a news item on the NEA website where I should be able to have adult conversations with colleagues who understand the demands of teaching, more often then not, I find the message board filled with nasty, teacher bashing comments from people who not only are not members of the NEA, but also have not set foot in a classroom since graduation.

        The public readily demands more “accountability and performance” from teachers while piling on additional work demands like this one. But when it comes time to pay us a living family salary, we are branded as greedy, lazy, parasites who only teach because we can’t “do”.

        The NEA journal’s stories are picked up and broadcast all over the internet, and Disqus invites every opinionated malcontent on the planet to offer their two cents, making it quite difficult to have anything like a professional discussion.

        Perhaps the frustration is a product of working in a profession where the average worker must go weeks, if not months without having a serious conversation with a thinking adult.

  • batteryinme

    The profession is doomed anyways at the hands of the fools in power. One can not be an effective teacher without caring for they students. One can not care for students without seeing how they are feeling physically and emotionally. One can not determine physical or mental health without some questions. One can not question without being vilified. As far as OBSERVE and REPORT…..how does one observe and report mental well being without questions? I do not report each and every physical mark on a kid….or the whole wrestling team would be reported (and their parents would sue I imagine). The sane thing is to ask….”hey, your eye is pretty messed up, you ok? What happened?” Hardly seems like “cross-examination” to me. Seems like a normal adult human being talking to a kid. Of course…there are fewer normal adult human beings out there, so perhaps these interactions must end for the conspiracy nuts satisfaction.

  • EightWheeler

    If teachers are forced to be cops, pay them overtime for the unpaid extra work they do during the off hours.

    • cjr

      Do we get the extra pay for having 2 jobs?

  • Val E. Forge

    The Constitution does allow the accused to confront the witnesses against him. Then by all means, have the teachers cross-examined. We as teachers are no different from other citizens.

  • EE

    I’d like to know of at least five recent examples of teachers who have made national news, in the last 12 months who have” NOT listened, then reported,” since they are so infamous. Then please explain to me how they are now living in infamy. Are you kidding me? Infamous? Methinks you are being a bit dramatic.

  • Michelle Basham Kachler

    “Teacher are infamous for not listening and then reporting”?
    and you are calling somebody else pretty extreme? A teacher cannot just call police or child services, there is a protocol that involves the principal and other professionals. Additionally, we are not making “assumptions” we are just reporting to the authorities in the building. And, “listening” means different things at different ages.
    “Many impoverished families are thus victimized – by teachers- who make false accusations…”
    First of all how is a teacher supposed to know the difference between a bump from a bat at practice and a bat at the hand of Mom’s boyfriend?
    Second of all, one a team of professionals feel that perhaps abuse/neglect could be possible, that information is passed on to law enforcement. That’s when, in your words, “… impoverished families are thus victimized…” or punished for actually abusing and/or neglecting their children.

  • Michelle Basham Kachler

    Amen gavinwca – I couldn’t have said it better until the part when you talk about the teacher determining what really happened. That is not the teacher’s job.

  • Ursula Y Lawson

    That’s true to, kids are rough an play hard. So you have a valid point.