Public School Police State?

, Nisha N. Mohammed, Leave a comment

WASHINGTON, DC—The Rutherford Institute has filed a “friend of the court” brief in the United States Supreme Court challenging the authority of government officials to seize and interrogate students in public schools without their parents’ knowledge or consent. The case, Alford, et al. v. Greene, will determine whether a state human services caseworker and deputy sheriff violated the rights of a 9-year-old girl when, without a court order or parental consent, they removed her from her elementary school classroom and questioned her for two hours about allegations of parental abuse. In weighing in on the case, Institute attorneys are urging the Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling and reject the idea that individual rights are forfeited when parents send their children to public schools, thereby creating a generalized exception to the Fourth Amendment rights of students and parents.

A copy of the Institute’s amicus brief is available here.

“Our nation’s schools are increasingly being transformed into police states where children are subject to indignities, such as mass, suspicionless searches, and parental rights are largely ignored,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Certainly, parents do not forfeit their rights when they send their children to public school.”

In February 2003, a uniformed county sheriff and an Oregon Department of Human Services investigator directed school officials at an elementary school to summon S.G., a 9-year-old girl, for questioning. S.G. was then removed from her class, taken to an empty conference room, and left alone with the sheriff (who had a firearm visible) and the investigator, who proceeded to interrogate her for two hours. No court order had been obtained authorizing the seizure and questioning of S.G., nor had the government agents contacted S.G.’s mother to seek her permission to question the young girl.

Nevertheless, the government agents questioned S.G. about allegations they had received that S.G.’s father had sexually abused another child and might have abused S.G. Despite the fact that S.G. allegedly denied that her father abused her, she later testified that she was coerced into telling the investigators he had abused her because she thought it was the only way they would allow her to leave. The encounter reportedly so scared S.G. that she was physically sick that night and could not eat.

S.G.’s mother subsequently sued the investigator and sheriff, alleging that they had violated S.G.’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In 2009, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the government agents violated S.G.’s constitutional rights. The court also declared that the agents’ actions at the school constituted an unauthorized seizure of S.G., which is not exempt from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

In appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government is arguing that S.G.’s mere presence at school was sufficient to justify law enforcement officers seizing and interrogating her without her mother’s knowledge or consent—a position with which The Rutherford Institute heartily disagrees, insisting that it would further undermine the rights of parents of public school students.

Nisha N. Mohammed is the press contact for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.