KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Kingsport Board of Education approved a new policy on the interrogation of students, but not before hearing from concerned citizens and discussing it at length.
The board approved the policy on second reading Tuesday night in a 4–1 vote, with board member Julie Byers casting the lone “nay” vote.
Board members, along with City Attorney Bart Rowlett, discussed the proposal for more than half an hour, and several citizens voiced their opposition during public comment.
“We always want to align our policies with state law,” school board President Melissa Woods told News Channel 11. “So this is not something we’re just making up by any stretch of the imagination. And really, the purpose of the policy is just to educate our students, to educate our employees, our educators, support staff and our parents, quite frankly, on what the law is and to assure them that we’re going to comply with the law.”
Assistant Superintendent Andy True said the policy is based on model policy by the Tennessee School Boards Association.
The policy allows teachers and principals to question a student without a parent being present if the student is accused or suspected of breaking school rules. It also allows for punishing a student for lying or refusing to answer a school official’s question.
City Attorney Bart Rowlett said the part about punishing students for lying or remaining silent applies when a student is questioned by a school official about a non-criminal matter, not when questioned by law enforcement about a possible crime.
A student questioned by police would still have the right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment and other constitutional rights, he said.
“This policy can’t trump constitutional rights, if law enforcement were to be involved in questioning a student, those same constitutional protections would apply,” Rowlett said.
Byers said not all situations warrant contacting a student’s parents, like if a student is questioned by a school official over a minor rules violation.
“That’s a waste of a lot of people’s time when it’s a simple thing that’s not causing bodily harm or threat to another student,” Byers said.
Board member Todd Golden said having to notify parents anytime a student is questioned by a school official would create problems. He brought up a possible scenario of school officials waiting for a parent to arrive before questioning two students about a fight.
“Then we run into a bit of an issue of locking down the entire school system until somebody can get there to be able to ask the kids what happened here,” Golden said.
He also said waiting for a parent to show up could have drastic consequences in an urgent situation, like if there is a threat to a student’s welfare.
Under the policy, if a student is to be questioned by police, the principal must attempt to notify the student’s parents “unless circumstances require otherwise.” However, the police interrogation may take place without a parent or guardian present.
Superintendent Chris Hampton pointed out that school officials cannot interfere with a police investigation.
Golden cited a 2014 opinion by the Tennessee attorney general that said principals are not obligated to notify parents before a police interrogation.
Hampton said parental notification depends on the urgency of the criminal investigation.
“If we’re investigating something that could result in bodily harm to a student, then the parent contact might not happen immediately,” Hampton said.
Hampton said it is rare for police to interrogate a student at school, but when they do, it’s usually because of an urgent situation. Police investigations are out of school officials’ hands, he said.
The superintendent also said the new policy won’t allow school officials to do anything that they haven’t been doing already.
“These practices have been at play in schools for the entirety of my time in this school system,” Hampton said.
Byers took issue with the part of the policy allowing students to be punished for lying or refusing to answer a school official.
“I think a child has the right to be quiet if they’re not comfortable because sometimes a kid gets really nervous and they’ll say things just so they can get out that principal’s office,” Byers said.
Other board members said punishing a student for lying or not talking would be at school officials’ discretion.
Rowlett pointed out that the proposed policy says a student “may” be punished, not “shall.”
Golden said the policy is predicated by state and federal law and at least 60 other districts across that state have enacted similar policies.