Supreme Court Backs Prosecution Use of Child’s Statement to Teachers About Abuse

By Mark Walsh — June 18, 2015 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that a child’s statement to his teachers about physical abuse at home that was introduced at trial without the testimony of the child did not violate the constitutional right of the accused to confront the witnesses against him.

“It is common sense that the relationship between a student and his teacher is very different from that between a citizen and the police,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for six justices in Ohio v. Clark (Case No. 13-1352).

Alito said that under the court’s recent precedents about the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment, a child’s statements to his teachers about abuse or other wrongdoing are unlikely to be considered “testimonial"—that is, statements that would normally invoke the amendment’s protections.

“Statements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the confrontation clause,” Alito said. “Few preschool students understand the details of our criminal justice system,” and thus a child reporting abuse to a teacher would be unlikely to “intend his statements to be a substitute for trial testimony.”

“On the contrary, a young child in these circumstances would simply want the abuse to end, would want to protect other victims, or would have no discernible purpose at all,” Alito said.

‘Who Did This to You?’

The case involves a child, identified as L.P., who was 3 years old when arrived at his Head Start center one day in 2010 with a bloodstained eye. Two teachers at the center questioned the boy about, “Who did this to you?” before L.P. identified Darius Clark, who was his mother’s boyfriend. (Education Week previewed the case here and covered the oral arguments here.)

The teachers, Ramona Whitley and Debra Jones, contacted Ohio’s child-welfare agency, as they were required to do under the state’s mandatory-reporter law. The agency’s investigation led to charges against Clark of felony assault and endangering children.

At Clark’s trial, L.P. was deemed unable to testify, so prosecutors relied on the boy’s identification of Clark in the statements to his teachers. The evidence led to a jury convicting Clark on four counts of felonious assault, and he was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Clark appealed, and the Ohio Supreme Court held in 2013 that the inability to cross-examine the child violated Clark’s confrontation-clause rights. The state high court went on to hold that the mandatory duty for teachers to report child abuse effectively made them agents of law enforcement because the state expected them to help identify the perpetrators of abuse.

The Ohio ruling was alarming to education groups, and the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National School Boards Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject that interpretation.

Alito did just that, writing in the June 18 decision that is was “inapt” to compare “caring questions” by teachers with an official interrogation by the police.

“The teachers’ pressing concern was to protect L. P. and remove him from harm’s way,” Alito said. “Like all good teachers, they undoubtedly would have acted with the same purpose whether or not they had a state-law duty to report abuse. And mandatory reporting statutes alone cannot convert a conversation between a concerned teacher and her student into a law enforcement mission aimed primarily at gathering evidence for a prosecution.”

Alito’s opinion was signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Justice Antonin Scalia issued his own opinion concurring in the outcome, which was signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Clarence Thomas also issued a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement: “We are pleased the court recognized what educators have long understood—namely, that mandatory reporting laws aren’t about prosecuting crimes, but are there to protect abused or neglected children and to ensure those children and their families get the help and support they deserve.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in her statement that the Supreme Court “correctly decided that teachers’ reporting doesn’t make teachers agents of law enforcement and recognized their role as educators who are concerned about the well-being of their students.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.