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Coalition pushes for Baltimore school police to adopt more youth-friendly Miranda warning

A coalition dedicated to reforming school discipline in Maryland is asking the Baltimore school board to adopt a youth-specific Miranda warning for school police to use when letting children know their legal rights.

The board is in the midst of considering new school police policies, and is accepting feedback on its sweeping draft of regulations before a scheduled vote next month.

Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender, recently urged the school board to use this opportunity to craft a Miranda warning that includes developmentally appropriate language more easily understood by children being interrogated.

It would be a divergence from the traditional recitation often heard in TV cop shows, which begins: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

That clunky legal language, Egan said, is difficult for children and teens to understand. Under pressure from authorities, some may waive their Miranda rights without understanding the ramifcations of their choice.

At a recent board meeting, another juvenile public defender, Neeta Pal, read the commissioners an example of a “youth-friendly” warning, which was implemented in Seattle’s King County last year. It includes phrases like, “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me” and “you have the right to talk to a free lawyer right now.”

Announcing the shift last year, the King County Sheriff’s Office said the “simplified warnings are consistent with research on adolescent brain science,” which show juveniles often lack the perspective and judgement to avoid potentially detrimental choices.

The Miranda warning stems from a 1966 Supreme Court decision that determined law enforcement officers must warn suspects that they have a right to remain silent and have an attorney present when answering questions.

But the Miranda ruling doesn’t establish a script that officers must use. Police agencies across the country use more than 800 variations, according to the American Psychological Association.

City schools police chief Akil Hamm told the school board that his officers are rarely in the position of having to recite Miranda rights to students, but he said he would consult with the district’s legal office to discuss whether a divergence from the more traditional script is possible.

The district’s new draft regulations already include pages of additional guidance for officers to adhere to when interrogating students, district officials said.

“Particular care must be taken to ensure that the juvenile fully comprehends their Miranda rights,” the draft general orders read.

The policy states that officers should consider factors such as a student’s age, mental state and maturity level.

Martha James-Hassan, chair of the school board's policy committee, said the group is still looking into what would be allowed under the police's general orders and state law and declined to comment on the board's position.

The American Bar Association passed a recommendation eight years ago encouraging police agencies to develop simplified Miranda language to use when arresting juveniles. The group said even slight word changes and simplified sentence structures would lead to “major improvements” in enabling children to grasp the rights afforded to them.

“It’s a very easy fix,” Egan said.

trichman@baltsun.com

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