Education

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

By Mark Walsh — June 18, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP