Accused of Wrongdoing At School: How Should A Student Respond?

What To Do When Accused of Wrongdoing at K-12 School?

The short answer is: Do not respond until it is safe to. When a student is accused of wrongdoing at school and questioned by a school official or School Resource Officer (SRO), he/she needs to treat the situation prudently. However, the child cannot treat it prudently unless you – the parent or guardian  well prepare him/her so.

This includes preparing your child not to answer any questions**, and not even nod, unless it is necessary so at the time of questioning or interrogation. In most situations, it is not necessary. A child should not respond to accusation of wrongdoing at least until his/her parent or guardian arrives at school and serves as a witness to the questioning.

The reason being: school authorities might misinterpret or, worse yet, misjudge what the student is trying to express.  A very young child is especially vulnerable to this possibility. Even nodding can be dangerous, as the school authority might interpret the gesture as an admission of guilt.

Therefore, parents should coach their children beforehand to say this when they are accused of wrongdoing at school and questioned by school authorities: “I would like my parent to be here before I respond. Please contact my parent now.”

Unfortunately, children are taught to automatically answer questions when asked, and parents seldom coach them not to.

** What if the question from the school authority is, “Can I search you and your book-bag?”?  This needs a proper response. For more information on how to handle Search and Seizure, please read Right #3 under my post: 15 Laws, Rights to Protect Your Child vs Unfair School Discipline or Treatment.

Accused of wrongdoing at school: 3 girls. 1 response. 1 big mistake.

In a wintry day in January, 2007, teacher Mr. N suddenly pulled three girls, X, Y and Z (my daughter), out of his classroom to the hallway. They had no clue that something was about to turn their lives upside down.

Mr. N wasted no time to start the accusation. “You thought I wouldn’t notice with you changing up the order of the countries, but I’m not stupid, you cheated and you know….,” he exerted on the girls.

He was referring to a classwork two weeks prior in which he asked his students to “work together” in groups on the computers, researching on ethnic conflict between countries. He told school officials that he had instructed the class very clearly at least twice that the project was an individual assignment. Meanwhile, the girls, as well as some of their classmates, believed it was a group project, and pooled their research results together.

Before the trauma in the hallway, X, Y and Z were savoring the last few months of their high school career. College applications had mostly been sent out, and their senior privilege, by virtue of their high GPAs, allowed them not to take the finals. Life could not have been better.

Never before were they accused of wrongdoing at school. Upon hearing Mr. N’s accusation, they were practically frozen, both body and brain. In the dead silence, X compelled to respond to Mr. N. She told me what she said: “Mr. N, when we turned in the assignment, I only knew that it had to be our own copy when [Y] had informed me.”

She meant “individual physical copy” when Y told her to print out and hand in her own copy instead of a group paper with all their three names on it. Now, how did Mr. N interpret what she said? And how did the school admin write up this incident? Will let you know later.

Surely, most educators love our children and protect them in schools as if they are their own children. However, parents should act proactively as their children’s first defense against unwarranted accusation and punishment.

3 strategies when accused of wrongdoing at school and being questioned:

1.  Coach your child beforehand not to answer any questions at all, until you arrive at school.

Because anything your child utters could be
A.  Interpreted incorrectly as a “confession” or,
B.  Written up wrongfully as a confession in the authority’s own words, not your child’s.

Authorities at school certainly have the right to ask your child questions when he/she is accused of wrongdoing. But thankfully, your child has the right to remain silent whether a school official or SRO questions him/her.

Your child needs your presence for support and as a witness to the manner that the school authorities conduct the questioning in, the language that they use to phrase the questions, and the exact answers that your child gives them.

For example, your child has the right to be questioned under an unintimidating manner with fair treatment. Your presence can enforce both, or witness the lack of them.

2.  A more strategic option: Allow your child to answer questions after you arrive at school, AND after you do the following:

First, instruct your child to keep silent while you calmly ask the school official or SRO questions to understand the situation:

  • What happened?
  • What do you accuse my child of and why?
  • What physical evidence do you have for the accusation?
  • Have you interviewed potential witness(es) who might prove my child is innocent? Etc.

Next, speak to your child privately (if possible, like outside the principal’s office) to hear his/her answers to YOUR questions according to the school authority’s questions and answers.

Finally, judge the whole situation very carefully – make sure  you firmly believe it is safe for your child to answer questions before you allow him/her to do so.

At any time, if you, or your child, feel uncomfortable on how the situation and questioning have evolved, you should stop the conversation immediately. You might want to seek legal advice at this point before your child answers any more questions.

Surely, this is a very cautious approach. But when your child is accused of wrongdoing at school, his/her future can be at stake. As such, you need to handle the situation with the utmost prudence.

3.  Have an attorney answer the questions from school authorities for you.

After judging the situation, you might conclude that you do not want your child to respond at all to any questions surrounding the accusation of wrongdoing, until you speak to an attorney.

Keep in mind that a school official or SRO can impose disciplinary action on or arrest your child, respectively, even if there is no physical evidence to support the accusation. Nevertheless, to deal with the pressing situation, some legal advice might save you tons of headache and heartache down the road.

However, now you may be facing two obstacles:

  • How can I afford the hefty legal cost at hundreds of dollars an hour?
  • How can I find a lawyer who can deal with my child’s situation RIGHT NOW?

How to get prompt legal advice at less than the “market price” or FREE?

Here is a source that might answer your need when you need legal help urgently and immediately:  www.Avvo.com.

Simply click on “Talk to a lawyer” on the webpage, and pick from the nine legal practice areas that Avvo is currently serving. However,  the only one among them that might likely serve your need in a school-related issue is Criminal Defense.

Their charge is $39 for 15 minutes, $79 for 30 minutes and so on. The site states: “Once you pay, a lawyer will call you within 15 minutes.” Currently, with this paid legal service, Avvo.com is serving people from 19 states. It offers 100% money-back guarantee, if you are not satisfied with the advice you receive.

In addition, Avvo.com offers FREE legal advice online for people from ALL states and on pretty much any legal topics you can think of  if you can wait a day or two. Simply type in your legal question anonymously on their site. Viola, usually within one day, an attorney will answer your question for free!

Keep in mind, even if you seek legal advice or help, it may not resolve your child’s case of wrongdoing accusation, nor prevent disciplinary action or arrest. Nonetheless, Avvo.com can be a valuable legal source to ask questions and get answers regarding your child’s situation. And the price is right!

How to get the best out of Avvo.com?

Since 2013, for mainly research purposes, I have personally asked many legal questions on Avvo.com. Not one question went unanswered, and the answers I have received are usually quite helpful.

Tip: Oftentimes, some attorneys’ answers would prompt me to ask additional questions. It could be a follow-up deeper question stemming from the original question, or a new question asked from a different angle. This is a good way to collect more relevant answers to a legal concern you have, or more legal opinions from different attorneys. No answers from two doctors are identical; the same goes to different attorneys’ advice, oftentimes. Ask more, and you know more. It is free!

Note: Postings on Avvo.com are anonymous. If you prefer, to further conceal your identity, you may enter a different city than the one you reside in. However, entering your actual state of residence is recommended. The reason being, a lot of laws and regulations are state-specific, and you would want the most pertinent answers from the attorneys.

Accused of wrongdoing at school: What if authority refuses to call parents?

Play the Game of Patience. And see who will win.

On April 12, 2016, four agents from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights descended on Raleigh, North Carolina. Their mission: investigating discrimination claims from African-American parents and students against the Wake County Public School System, the largest school system in North Carolina.

In a spacious meeting room, parents lined up one by one, and each began pouring out his/her own agonizing story at the podium. Meanwhile, the audience of close to 100 listened intensely.

One father told the story of a SRO accusing his boy of wrongdoing and interrogating him at school for 4 hours. He – the father – was finally notified when the SRO lost the Game of Patience. What a smart boy – he refused to answer any questions from the SRO until his father was there. According to the father, once he arrived, his boy answered all the questions within a few minutes, practically amazing the SRO.

How to preserve evidence and better the chance of overturning the case?

By tape-recording the conversation between you/your child and the school authorities if legally permissible. A recording can be a better “witness” than you are to hold the truth and facts when you need them to counter the accusation against your child.

If you live in a state that enforces the one-party consent statute, you can secretly record the conversation without asking for consent from the other party, as long as you are participating in the conversation. This means you can record the conversation without even asking for permission from the school authorities. Chances are, if you ask, they would likely decline to be recorded.

So, if the state you live in enforces the one-party tape-recording statute, turn on your phone to record before you walk into the school.

Check out if your state enforces the one-party tape-recording statute here, and also read Laws On Recording Conversations in All 50 States.

Please confirm with an attorney before you start any recording, since violating the tape-recording laws can incur serious legal and monetary consequences. Do this confirmation before your child is actually accused of wrongdoing at school.

Should you trust school authority’s judgment when your child is accused of wrongdoing at school?

Back to Jan. 2007…  The Notice of Suspension form for each of the three girls states: Primary Policy Violation – 6445.1 Cheating. And it elaborates below: “… [Student X] admitted that they know before the papers were turned in that this was an individual assignment…”

Apparently, Mr. N believed that X’s response covered for all three girls, and that it was a “confession” of plagiarism, which was escalated to “cheating.” He refused to accept any explanation from her.

Trying to hear his side of the story, I even asked him to write out exactly what he heard she said that made him believe she “admitted” any wrongdoing. He responded: “[Asst. Principal] Mr. Rice is my supervisor and is the one to contact on this matter.”

But I was curious and persistent. I wondered, “What exactly did Mr. N instruct the students for the assignment, and what is his true character in the classroom?” Cautiously, I sent out a questionnaire to all the students (except the 3 girls) in the class.

Seven courageous students responded. They even signed their testimonies in front of the school counselor, testifying against Mr. N.  Shockingly, they revealed his provocative behaviors behind the closed classroom door, and rebutted his claim of clear instruction of “individual assignment.”

But no matter, the girls’ suspensions were upheld, their senior privileges taken away, their reputation tarnished, their honorable club memberships stripped, their scholarship applications suffered (since school officials would not allow them to mention these memberships), their college applications jeopardized …

Accused of wrongdoing at school: Your child depends on your proactive action.

Trust your parental instinct to protect your child. Certainly, most school authorities treat students fairly. But one ounce of proactive measure can prevent 10 tons of sorrow and regret.

So please coach your child on how to handle high pressure questioning when he/she is accused of wrongdoing at school, BEFORE he/she is actually confronting such situation. Shield him/her against harm with your teaching if not physically.

In a few words: prepare your child for the rain before it pours. Because when the torrential rain comes, you and your child may not see a way out. Just like the nine of us – the three girls and their parents – couldn’t in 2007.

 

Related articles:
15 Laws, Rights to Protect Your Child vs Unfair School Discipline or Treatment by Shirley Tang
12 Things You May Have to Do When Your Child Is Falsely Accused of Bullying Someone
 by Mary Kay Hoal, founder of Yoursphere.

Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is for your general guideline only. For formal or legal advice, please consult an attorney.

Shirley Tang

About the author

Shirley Tang has devoted her life to students’ success. Drawn from personal experience, she founded uCANcomplain – an organization and platform that helps parents with children facing peer/adult bullying and discrimination in K-12 public schools. Shirley is an Educational and Civil Rights Advocate, a Mentor, Journalist, Policy Watchdog for the local community, and Former Educator. Her passion is to empower parents and students in seeking their voice, truth, redress, and school accountability. Shirley’s goal is to equip students for success by ensuring they receive a sound education and equitable opportunities.

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Elizabeth Carlton
Member
6 years ago

It breaks my heart that our children have to be taught how to legally defend themselves in school, and yet I see cases on the news all the time about wrongdoings in school—by teachers and students alike. While I think we should be careful about our children not using these tips as an excuse to dodge the consequences of poor actions (let’s be honest, not every kid is a saint and there are several who would), it IS important to teach our children to recognize a potentially legal situation when it arises.

The testimony you gave about the students who were accused of plagiarism over a misunderstood assignment is a good example. If the question being posed by a teacher can potentially put an innocent student on a chopping block, it’s important to take caution and approach the situation fairly. That includes ensuring the parents are notified and present during major disciplinary actions.

This is a good article. Thank you for sharing it.

Kim Yae
Member
6 years ago

This is a great article. Kids definitely have rights and should not have to answer any questions without their guardians or parents present. What happened to those young girls could have been prevented if their parents were part of the discussion. Every kid should know about this information in case they ever find themselves in a similar situation. I have a nephew who is in school and I’m going to make sure his parents relay this information to him. This could prevent a lot of chaos in the future.

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