What became clear throughout our conversation is that there is quite a bit of confusion as to what policies are being enacted by the police and why. The anti-truancy sweep and the crackdown on provisional drivers is a key confusion. But it’s also important to understand how this confusion contributes to the fear and anxiety that is clearly facing these students. If the message that the police want to get across to the students is that they are serious about the issue of enforcing age requirements for passengers of provisional drivers, this message gets lost. In speaking with the students there was expressed concern of intimidation by the police of students, there was a sense that students did not know their rights and this put them in greater legal jeopardy, and finally almost everyone of these students including Amanda Lopez-Lara, have a story about being pulled over.
Because we are dealing with minors, I will only use their first names with the exception of Amanda, who is in a bit of a different position since she is the student representative on the school board. In addition, one of the parents asked that their daughter’s name be withheld, and so I have complied with this request, she will be referred to as the female student.
Each of these students seemed to have a story about being pulled over on campus.
Amanda told me that she knew of a few students, including herself who have been followed by the police and pulled over by the police. In her situation, she was driving with a friend in the same car legally, however, she was followed by the police for a number of blocks before she finally pulled into the school parking lot.
The female student tells of being questioned by a police officer in the parking lot after she had parked on campus.
“I got out of my car and as I was walking to class there was a patrol officer and he stopped, he had been following me back from lunch and he asked me if I had my license for a year. And I said no, I have only had it for eight months and he gave me a citation and I asked him if he was profiling and he just pretty much laughed. I was still really pissed off because I honestly thought it was profiling, so I went to the office and there was a cop there that I talked and he told it wasn’t profiling because he hadn’t had me detained, so I could have actually legally said, no I don’t want to answer your questions.”
Soren also had a story to tell.
“I was in a car that, I suppose this is a situation similar to [the female student’s], I was in a car that, well not pulled over, but pulled over to the side of the road because he saw two cops and he didn’t want to get pulled over. And the cop just pulled up right behind him.
Coming back to think of it, the cop didn’t have his lights on which means he didn’t pull us over, which means we didn’t have to, my friend didn’t have to answer his questions. Well he did, and he got a ticket for it and it’s even worse because he didn’t have his license on him and it wasn’t his car.”
Drew and Mohamed were walking from their class to the library which is next door to the high school. They claim they had permission from their teacher to pick up a book.
“He put us in the back of the patrol car and drove us back to school. Once we did get to school, it wasn’t just that we were to go back to our classes, they took us into the office and they questioned us for about fifteen minutes, about drugs, just to see… They threatened to search us and they just were checking to see if we’d visibly react. The most interesting thing I think is how rudely we were being treated.”
The students also each felt that either they or their peers did not know their rights. Amanda told me that she was trying to get the student government to look into Miranda Rights Training for the students.
When I spoke to Lt. Pytel later in the week, he was agreeable to having a seminar for the students similar to one that he ran for the public last spring, whereby he would talk to students about what their rights are, and what the police can and cannot do in a given situation. When the students can refuse to speak and when they cannot.
This is a serious concern that arose during my interview with the students who felt that they did not know their rights and therefore they ended up actually incriminating themselves with statements that they did not have to make.
The female student said that in her incident, it was not until she spoke with the officer in the office, that she realized that she had not been required to speak.
“I could have actually legally said, no I don’t want to answer your questions. My biggest thing is that those rights were not available to me. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been told, no one has come up to me, and said, you know your Miranda rights I feel like that should be a part of that, that should be something that they should tell me. I should have known that I could have said I don’t want to answer your questions because I wasn’t in violation of the traffic law. “
According to Soren,
“Well I think kids really need to know their fourth and fifth amendments. The fourth amendment says that cops can’t search your car without a warrant. And the fifth amendment gives you a right to not incriminate yourself.”
While Soren has some understanding of his rights, he probably did not realize that it does not require a warrant to search a vehicle like it would an individual’s home.
Nevertheless the clear lesson from the lack of knowledge of his rights was driven home during his experience.
“Coming back to think of it, the cop didn’t have his lights on which means he didn’t pull us over, which means we didn’t have to, my friend didn’t have to answer his questions. Well he did, and he got a ticket for it and it’s even worse because he didn’t have his license on him and it wasn’t his car.”
Drew also was troubled by the lack of information that students have pertaining to their rights and the fact that it impacts the interactions with the police.
“When they go to you and they have two cop cars behind them and kids don’t know their rights, and they don’t want to call their parents of course, they don’t know what to say. When a cop comes in and starts asking you questions, you are just taught to respond to the questions, and be respectful and tell the cop the truth, but the thing is, that when your rights are being infringed there is no one there to tell you that you don’t have to say this.”
He later followed up on his point during the closing remarks:
“I want to just point out that I think that it’s important that students know their rights and that people know their rights because your rights aren’t any good unless you’re using them.”
Intimidation also appears to be a consistent theme through my discussions with the students. Part of this is the normal interaction with police authority figures. It is not necessarily that the police are going out of their way to intimidate, but that’s certainly the perception by the students. I think this probably should underscore the pitfalls of having police get involved with such issues. Furthermore it also demonstrates how easily the message and point can quickly get lost.
According to Drew, he saw a clear intimidation factor.
“There is definitely an intimidation factor that is going on at the high school, people are being pulled over just because they’re age profiled all the time, the cops that come on campus are in full uniform, they sort of glare at students.”
This intimidation and fear has according to Mohamed eroded the trust for not just the police but also the administration. They feel that they cannot trust some of the people in authority. Drew said that this actually did not begin this year but rather last year.
“It seems as though at some point about halfway through last year, the cops really got into showing force and numbers and trying to scare kids.”
One of his complaints is that it is not just one patrol car pulling students over, but rather several.
According to the female student, they question the priorities of the police as well.
“I don’t want this to come off as a cop bashing session, because that’s not the point of this, the point of this is that like that these are valid opinions, none of this is coming from like teenage angst, or I just feel really unfair right now. No, it’s like actually like I feel that the police should have something better to do with their time.”
Soren tells us:
“As far as the cops pulling over kids who probably haven’t had their license long enough, what they do is that they pull over the kids that look the most scared of them, the ones that look at the cop and then start driving really carefully, if you’re picking on the scared kids, isn’t that exactly what intimidation is.”
The female student also suggests that the plan could work but they are not going about it in the right way.
“It’s all intimidation. This new plan that they have, it could work, it’s just that the way they’re going about it. Every single time a kid has a story, like the one that Drew and Mohamed just told, those stories go around and people get scared. When there’s a cop around any kid at the high school they feel scared that they’re checking, they think, oh what am I doing wrong. It shouldn’t be like that at all.”
For the Drew the issue is not what the police are doing, but rather their demeaner as they are doing it.
“The only thing that I can say in terms of the cops and whether they are intimidating or to support, I think that better than any story that somebody can tell is really just look at their face, look at their expression, they are not smiling at you, they are frowning at you and glaring at you. And trying to scare you. I was walking through the high school just to get to a class, I was in school, on campus, walking from one classroom to another, and I see a police officer that just glared at me, that right there is all I need to see that they are not there to support. They don’t say hi, they don’t smile at you, they don’t say oh, how’s everything going, no they just glare at you and if you shake a little bit they assume you have something on you.”
Mohamed had questions about the truancy sweep and the motivations behind it. As we’ve discussed previously this week, one of the factors in the rise of truancy was problems with the calling system in the attendance office that the students figured out before the parents.
“A lot of people are saying that the truancy numbers have like gone up, especially in the last year, but the reason for this is that at the beginning of last year for the first three months of the school year, any unexcused absences, there was no phone call home. And there was no way of informing your household that you had an unexcused absence so people would forget about it. When a lot of students found out about this, they took advantage of this. So in turn, they say the new truancy sweep is because of the increasing numbers of truancy, the fact that we lost almost three-quarters of a million dollars last year. But if you look at in fact, the reason that all of this happened is because of a mistake made by the front office or the attendance office or whatever is, and that began the increase in numbers. So a lot of these numbers are in fact, I would see them as like false, over-exaggerated or something.”
He also wondered if money rather than education was not a heavily motivating factor behind the concern. The money issue also came up during the school board debates where the claim was made that the school district lost over $500,000 from truancy.
“The first thing I keep hearing when they talk about wanting to get the kids in the seat is the money that we keep losing. It seems it comes back to money rather than worried about us getting our education.”
When I spoke with Lt. Pytel and others in the school district, he was surprised that the crackdown on driving caused so much confusion. He told me that they ran an announcement in the bulletin for three days prior to the effort and yet students largely seemed unaware and to ignore it.
However, Soren questions the effectiveness of such announcements. According to him, “no one actually reads the daily bulletin.” If that is the case, then that is probably not the best means by which to communicate with the students.
The overriding beliefs I had as I listened to these students both during the interview and just now as I went through the recording of that interview is the amount of fear, anxiety, and confusion that has been brought about not necessarily by this policy and the crackdown, but rather by the failure to communicate what was going on adequately to the students, to the community, to their parents, and even to the school board.
The sense I get is that the school wants to send the message that they are going to take truancy seriously. The police wants to send the message that they are going to take the issue of provisional license requirements more seriously than they have in the past. But it is not clear to me that the message got through to the students. And if the message has not gotten through to the students, then perhaps this was not the best approach.
There is however an opportunity here for real communication and real learning. The students are now interested in the civics lesson of knowing their rights. That may be a good start. But frankly I think there are other lessons that we want to teach the students. I think we want to teach them the value of a good education and give them reasons to go to class and do well in school. I do not see that message getting through by these means.
I also think that the confusion between the truancy issue and the provisional license issue has probably harmed both efforts.
Finally and I cannot stress this enough, this demonstrates the need to have a policy that comes from the school board to the community and then to the administration and not probably the other way around.
I will also say since someone will mention it, obviously this is but one or six of many perspectives from the high school. This reflects the feelings of these students, but many other high school students probably have very different responses. Nevertheless, I do not think that fact invalidates some of the concerns raised here.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting