School Officials Learning Coercive Interrogations Tactics to Extract Confessions from Kids

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Adult inter­ro­ga­tion meth­ods do not belong in the class­room, so why are school admin­is­tra­tors through­out the Unit­ed States being trained to use them on their stu­dents in order to extract con­fes­sions?

John E. Reid & Asso­ciates is the largest inter­ro­ga­tion train­er in the world and teach­es such meth­ods to hun­dreds of school admin­is­tra­tors each year. Last month, mem­bers of the Illi­nois Prin­ci­pals Asso­ci­a­tion, for instance, could reg­is­ter for a “pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment” event on “Inves­tiga­tive Inter­view­ing and Active Per­sua­sion”. The School Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion of New York State recent­ly offered a work­shop for admin­is­tra­tors on this same top­ic, titled “Are you Sure They Are Telling the Truth”?

These admin­is­tra­tors are learn­ing the “Reid Tech­nique”, which relies on “max­i­miza­tion” and “min­i­miza­tion” tac­tics in order to induce sus­pects to con­fess. Min­i­miza­tion focus­es on reduc­ing a suspect’s feel­ings of guilt, while max­i­miza­tion is designed to height­en sus­pect anx­i­ety using con­fronta­tion. Both tech­niques are legal and both are incred­i­bly coer­cive.

Con­trolled stud­ies of Reid inter­ro­ga­tion have doc­u­ment­ed that while such tech­niques may increase the like­li­hood that a guilty per­son will con­fess, they also increase the like­li­hood that an inno­cent per­son will as well. New research released in Feb­ru­ary found that the Reid tech­nique caus­es wit­ness­es to false­ly impli­cate oth­ers.

Reid & Asso­ciates itself advis­es cau­tion when using the tech­nique on chil­dren, espe­cial­ly in schools. In addi­tion to con­cerns about the effi­ca­cy of prin­ci­pal-admin­is­tered inter­ro­ga­tions are those involv­ing basic fair­ness: school admin­is­tra­tors are not required to issue Miran­da warn­ings to chil­dren they inter­ro­gate on their own (with­out law enforce­ment present), so chil­dren are not advised of their rights to an attor­ney or to remain silent.

There is already a well-rec­og­nized trend of law enforce­ment coerc­ing con­fes­sions from the young and vul­ner­a­ble – siphon­ing them into the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. One exam­ple is the Engle­wood Four in Chica­go. Teenage boys were coerced into false­ly con­fess­ing to a mur­der on the south side of the city, and spent more than 15 years in prison as a result. Ter­rill Swift, one of the Four, is my client in a civ­il suit against his police inter­roga­tors. There are many recent, less-trum­pet­ed cas­es, where the coer­cion of youth seems less an out­lier than a gen­er­al police tac­tic.

Juve­nile coerced con­fes­sions share cer­tain hall­marks: use of intim­i­da­tion, threats, promis­es of lenien­cy, and out­right lies, so that the youth feel their only way out is by con­fess­ing. Adult inter­roga­tors take advan­tage of the fact that chil­dren are less mature and more sus­cep­ti­ble to pres­sure, and that they lack the expe­ri­ence to make deci­sions in their best inter­est. Youth in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem are more like­ly to have diag­nos­able psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, and they often fall vic­tim to the “sta­tus dif­fer­en­tial” — youth feel com­pelled to answer police ques­tions because of the offi­cers’ ele­vat­ed posi­tion of pow­er. All of this is why the young are much more like­ly than adults to give false con­fes­sions.

Sub­ject­ing chil­dren to coer­cive inter­ro­ga­tions by school offi­cials serves no oth­er pur­pose than to esca­late the flow of our nation’s youth into the school-to-prison pipeline, a phe­nom­e­non by which vio­la­tions of school rules become crim­i­nal­ized and chil­dren – par­tic­u­lar­ly poor, LGBTQ, black and his­pan­ic chil­dren – are fun­neled out of schools and into jails and pris­ons. Not only does the pipeline lead to high­er rates of incar­cer­a­tion but it also results in eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty.

Rather than train­ing prin­ci­pals to inter­ro­gate, schools should focus on non-puni­tive approach­es like in-school behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion, men­tor­ship, and diver­sion tac­tics. That is the more eth­i­cal and com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tered approach.