Parental Rights, Investigations, & Transparency at Atkins High School

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by Camel City Dispatch

By Staff


atkins high school
atkins high school

The events that occurred at Atkins High School the days between April 13th and 27th have become all too familiar in America- a school full of students are put through the frightening and disheartening experience of living under anonymous threats of extreme violence on a mass scale. The measure of a people is taken in how we react to these kinds of threats. In this case the reaction and subsequent investigation have raised questions of profiling, investigative over-reach, and what parental rights we have over our children once they step through the schoolhouse doors.

What is said to have begun as a Skype chat between 18 teenaged boys blowing off steam with typical adolescent, hyperbolic, misdirected anger turned into an investigation shrouded in secrecy. What information that did reach parents was mostly built of rumor and conjecture. Even media reports that were finally wrong made the ridiculous claim that Atkins High School has “gangs”. We can’t tell you about a case involving students, so just trust us was the mantra coming from the school system and police. Meanwhile parents had no real information as to whether it was safe to send their children to school or exactly how they should react.

Some students and parents claim that school administrators and police targeted African-American student and kids with developmental disabilities such as Autism for questioning. Students who had no or very tenuous connections (like being seen in the same lunch room) to the two suspects were pulled in for questioning by assistant principal Araunah James and as many as two police officers at the time. Without being allowed to contact their parents, these students were subjected to accusations and questions about their private lives and the private lives of their parents- all without cause and without a parent being notified, even after the questioning took place. The students were at the mercy of adults who did not inform them of their rights and asked them questions regarding serious felonies without knowing that were surrendering their rights to privacy and that they could accidentally incriminate themselves in a criminal matter.

On Monday, April 13th, parents of students at Atkins High School received an automated phone call from principal Joe Childers stating that some students had made threats of violence in a mass text and that the appropriate disciplinary measures had been applied. He stated that additional police officers would be present at the school as a precaution. The school, he said, was safe.

“There is going to be a shooting today and tomorrow. So I love you.” This was an online text message sent by a student to their mother just before 9am on Tuesday, April 14th. That morning rumors had begun to fly around the school. Students were talking to each other and texting their friends and parents, telling them the word on campus was that there was going to be a mass shooting. The students all seemed to know that it was somehow connected to 18 people who had been in on a Skype chat that associated with the name “Atkins Drive-By”. Not a gang by any of the measures police apply to that term, it was a chat by a group of students.
It is important to understand that Atkins High School is one of the best performing schools in the district. The students at this magnet-only high school are high achieving and under real pressure from parents, administrators, and other students regarding grades and outcomes. Principal Joe Childers has created a school culture that places academic achievement and excellence above all else. That is exactly why most parents want their children attending.

According to sources, a young man angry over a bad grade he’d received began what has been referred to as “recruiting students” to take retaliatory action. Students close to the conversation said that one student was talking about getting back at teachers and students at the school and mentioned an “Atkins drive-by”.

Most of the students in on the the conversation now say that they thought that the “plan” was a joke. The kids on the Skype chat made fun of the idea considering the ages of all involved, mocking their inability to carry out a drive by shooting because none of them were old enough to drive or even had access to a car. Apparently at least two of the students involved were serious enough about the matter to begin communicating away from the chat, coming up with a “plan”.

The situation came to the attention of school officials and/or police after another student is said to have “recorded the skype chat”. From what can be confirmed, the two primary students were removed from the school, and have not been seen or heard from by students or their friends since that time. Students who know the suspects have stated that they understand that the suspects were interrogated for 8 hours, and that their phones and computers were confiscated.

On Tuesday evening, the 14th, Atkins families received another phone call from Joe Childers stating that school officials were “continuing to work with the police to investigate the situation regarding the students who were discussing violence at school,” and that there would be additional officers on campus again as a precaution. No details were given about the nature or seriousness of the threat. Parents had no idea if the school was safe or not, just vague assurances from administrators.

By Wednesday kids began reporting that students who knew “The 18” were being pulled out of class and questioned by the assistant principals and police. That day was a previously scheduled early release day. Many students expressed concern over attending the talent show scheduled for that day, as rumor on campus was the performance was to be the scene of the proposed violence. A number of students stayed home from school that day or were picked up early. The school decided to postpone the talent show “as a precaution” but students were not informed of that until just before the event was to occur and parents were not notified until another phone call from Childers that evening. That call ended with a statement that the school was “continuing to work with law enforcement as they investigate the situation.”

The investigation continued on Thursday with additional students being pulled for questioning. Students began to comment that they felt the administration and police were profiling, noticing a high number of African American students and students with disabilities being called in to the office for questioning.

One student CCD talked to, who confirmed that he knew the two primary students involved in the incident by name and had been in classes with them and had a lunch period at the same time they did, was never pulled in for questioning. He knew that some students who knew the suspects had been called in, but also knew of several more who knew or were acquainted with the suspects that were not called in and interrogated. Many of those who were called in had little to no connection with the suspects.

CCD became aware of a student who was called in for questioning. This student was not friends with any of the “18” and to his knowledge was not even in any classes or lunch periods with those students in question. The young man is on the autism spectrum, a fact which is documented in his school file.

The student was told to go to the office of assistant principal Araunah James. When he entered the room he found James, another assistant principal, Robin Willard, and the School Resource Officer. The door was closed and the student was asked questions about the situation at the school. After answering that he did not know anything more than the rumors swirling around campus, the student was questioned about his personal life. These questions included asking what he did in his free time, what movies he watched, the video games he played, what his home life was like and whether or not there were weapons in his house.

The questioning went as far as to ask specific questions about historical figures after the student stated that he watched documentaries about World War II in his spare time. The student was never informed of his right to leave the room or of his right to refuse to answer questions. For any student, finding yourself in a room with a uniformed, armed police officer and being grilled like a suspect in a bad TV movie is a disorienting and confusing situation. For a person on the autism spectrum,who has tremendous trouble figuring out the most basic of social situations, having authority figures treat them this way without cause is absolutely terrifying. At no time were this young man’s parents notified that he was being questioned or that the questions ranged into personal information about the young man’s parents and family.

The parents wouldn’t find out until the kid got off of the bus shaking and still scared. The boy’s mother was concerned about her child, who remained anxious long after the interrogation. She went to Atkins that Friday to find out why her son was questioned, the process of the investigation that led them to put her child in that position, and why she was not informed of their intention to interrogate him before or after. She was told that Mr. James was “in conference” and was told that she could wait or email her concerns to him.

While this parent waited at the school for over an hour, she witnessed two students being called into the office and then escorted by police officers, who were clearly displaying badges on lanyards, to a room which they all entered. The students still had not left the room when the mother had to leave to return to work. She left her phone number for Mr. James.

Later that afternoon, the mother received a phone call from Mr. James. He had put the phone on speakerphone, but did not inform the parent. She was smarter than he imagined and was aware the whole time that others were listening in to the conversation.

The mom expressed her concern over the fact that her son had been interrogated. James responded that he had every right to question the student, or any student on campus, at any time and for any reason. The mother asked if James was aware that her son had a developmental disability that influences his ability to understand social situations and process information. According to the mother, James stammered about without answering, at which point the mother reiterated the difficulty the student would have in understanding and answering questions and told the administrator that he would get more straightforward answers if someone familiar with the student and his disabilities were present to ask questions. At this point James became defensive and said that the mother did not know what kind of training he did or did not have, but refused to state if he had any experience or training in dealing with students on the spectrum.

The mother again expressed that she was trying to help James successfully get any information that her son or any other student on the spectrum might have, at which point James asked if she wanted her son questioned again in her presence. The mother responded that she did not want her son questioned again under any circumstance, and that she had instructed her son to not speak to anyone at the school on the matter without calling her first. James told her that she could do what she wanted, but that he had the right to question her son again if he wanted.

At this point the mother asked for clarification as to why her son was called in for questioning in the first place. James’ answer initially was that the student was around the students in question and that they wanted to see what he may have overheard. When the mother asked where her son might have been around the suspects, James paused and then said “in the lunchroom.” The mother restated James’ answer back to him, confirming that he was called in because he was present with some of the students involved while in the lunchroom and all he wanted to know was if he overheard any statements by those students, to which James responded “yes.” It is worth noting that the young man in question spends most of his lunch periods sitting alone due to difficulty navigating the social complexities of a high school lunch room. It is also worth noting that there are hundreds of other students who use the same facility but were not called in for questioning.

The mother then asked why, if the purpose of his questioning was to determine what her son may have overheard, James did not simply ask what the young man may have overheard, but went directly into deeply personal and private questions that had nothing to do with the students’ experience at or conduct in school.

James’ response was that he was trying to determine what [her student] had in common with the suspects and if he was connected to them or might have participated in the incident.

Frustrated, the mother confronted James for not being honest with her about why her son was called in. James responded that the mother was “emotional” and unable to have “rational” conversation on the matter and that he thought it best to end the phone call. The mother tried to continue the conversation, and after stating that she knew she was on speakerphone, asked that everyone in the room identify themselves. After a long pause, the assistant principal Robin Willard identified herself, and then there was another long pause, after which someone came over a radio and said that the school attorney was on the phone. James then again said that he was going to end the call, and just hung up the phone. The mother believes that other people were also in the room but did not identify themselves.

Beyond the arrogance of the attitude, the legal concept James was referring to is known as in loco parentis. This is the legal doctrine describing a relationship similar to that of a parent to a child, referring to an individual who assumes parental status and responsibilities for another individual, usually a young person, without formally adopting that person. A common application of in loco parentis relates to teachers and students. For about the first two hundred years in our nation, when students were often sent to boarding schools and moral education was seen as a role of schools, the legal authority of teachers over students was nearly the equivalent to that of parents. Changes in education in the United States along with a broader reading by U.S. courts of the rights of students, began bringing in loco parentis into disrepute by the 1960s. A half-century later, Incidents like Columbine and 9-11 had brought about cultural changes that seemed to make citizens willing to give up many of their rights up in the name of “safety”. This atmosphere also brought in loco parentis back as a legal doctrine that school administrators began to once more hide behind.

Does James’ application of in loco parentis apply in this case? Sort of. The legal standing James had might wind up being worked out in court, but the factors considered would be centered around how he presented the interrogation to students and if they were aware that they could leave and refuse to answer questions at any time (they can). What is also in question is whether or not James could function in the status as a parent and interrogate students at the same time. It is reasonable to expect that in a police interrogation situation, a parent would see their primary role as protector of their child while ensuring accurate information is presented. The goal of an interrogator is primarily to get that information, and justice system does not protect a child any differently than an adult in the guilt phase of a trial. James seems to see his rights trumping those rights normally reserved for parents, essentially reserving for himself even more rights than a police officer has in this matter.

CCD spoke about the situation with attorney and Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Wake Forest University’s School of Law, Ron Wright. Wright is one of America’s best known criminal justice scholars.*
“Public school administrators can question students about potential crimes without their parents being present. It’s OK as long as the student is not in ‘custody’ during the interrogation,” Wright stated. He went on to explain that there is a special statute in North Carolina dealing with interrogation of juveniles ‘in custody’ which is sometimes called the ‘Juvenile Miranda’ law. This statute requires the person who is questioning the juvenile to inform the child that he/she has the right to have a parent or guardian present, but the statute only applies when the juvenile is questioned ‘in custody.’ “

What is unclear is if the students questioned at Atkins would have legally been considered “in custody” during that questioning and thereby informed of their rights in order to secure testimony related to the investigation. If they had been formally placed under arrest, the police would have had to mirandize the students, and they would have had to operate under the US and NC’s laws regarding the student’s, and parent’s, rights. These laws protect against self-incrimination, provide for parental involvement, and set guidelines for questioning. As it stands, the laws governing the determination of “custody” are complicated by the school setting, as it is considered an inherently restrictive environment.

According to the UNC School of Government, there are two threshold questions for determining whether or not a student should be notified of their rights in order for their statements to be admissible in court. The first is was the juvenile “in-custody”, i.e., under all the circumstances, would a reasonable person not have felt free to leave because he had been formally arrested or had had his freedom of movement restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest. The second is, was the juvenile interrogated, i.e., subjected to questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way. Interrogation is also defined as “words or conduct the police should have known are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”

It is unlikely that a high school student would not consider themselves in some form of custody if they were ordered to a room where armed police officers stood watch while they were grilled by their assistant principal. It is also unlikely that a student would know that they did not have to answer any question or even remain in the room unless they were directly informed of those rights or had been formally placed under arrest.

Dean Wright stated, “There might be particular features of this conversation (placement of people in the room, door open or closed, anything said about the student’s right to leave, anything said about purpose of the meeting) that would be relevant to a court.” He continued that the factors presented to him in this matter “would certainly weigh on the side of calling it “custody.”

This particular situation is complicated further by the fact that the police present in the room evidently did not ask questions, but apparently used the assistant principal James as an agent to ask questions of the students in their presence. Because they did not directly ask students questions, they are placing a step between them and interrogation, making it more difficult for parents to directly prove that they should have been notified of the questioning. However, repeated statements from the school and Theo Helm, the district’s chief of staff, stated that “police are continuing to investigate” and that the school and district was “working closely with the police.”

Does the fact that the school administrator appears to have taken lead on this investigation demonstrate sloppy police work or a willful run-around parental and student rights? Did James feel so threatened by his students that he felt it necessary to have police present when he questioned them or was he operating as an agent of the police? Would that impact the validity of any testimony made in that setting? Will any of the information gathered through these questioning sessions led by James be in any way admissible in court? These are all questions that will be played out in court, whether in the trials of the two students arrested or in the lawsuits likely to be filed by the parents of questioned students.

What is known is that parents are once again frustrated with the WSFCS. Just as in the situation around the toxic waste on the Hanes/Lowrance campus, the issue is parental notification and what rights parents have to information about their children and the conditions in which they are attending classes. The school system and police knew of the threats on April 10th, but parents were not even notified until the evening of the 13th, after their children had been at school that day. It took over two weeks from when parents were first notified of the threats until the announcement that two students had criminal charges filed against them, and even in that release, the investigation was said to be ongoing. During that time period, parents went 10 days without comment from the school on the matter, in spite of an ongoing investigation and police presence on campus.

Everyone wants their children to be safe, but at what price? Do we teach our young people to give into fear and surrender that rights and dignity for some promise of safety? Parents, teachers, school administrators, and police officers should not be people that kids fear. They should be people that they admire. We may never know exactly what happened in the case of this particular threat. What we do know is that the behavior and actions of the adults in this situation are being watched by our kids and it is up to the adults to behave like grown-ups and show students how people behave when they have mutual respect for their fellow citizens- not how people behave when they panic.


Editor’s Note:

In the interest of full disclosure CCD staffers have student(s) at Atkins High School.

*Ron Wright is the co-author of two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing; his empirical research concentrates on the work of criminal prosecutors. He is a board member of the Prosecution and Racial Justice Project of the Vera Institute of Justice, and has been an advisor or board member for Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences (FAMM), North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., and the Winston-Salem Citizens’ Police Review Board. Prior to joining the Wake Forest faculty, he was a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, prosecuting antitrust and other white-collar criminal cases.

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