Education

Why Are K-12 School Leaders Being Trained in Coercive Interrogation Techniques?

With educators being taught how to extract confessions from students, the school-to-prison pipeline shrinks every day.

One of America’s great paradoxes (or perhaps hypocrisies) is its claim to be a global beacon of freedom, even as it jails more of its citizens—by population percentage and in raw numbers—than any other country in the world. This tendency toward suspicion, hyper-enforcement and punishment is so pervasive it even trickles down to our kids. CNN cites a National Center for Education Statistics report that finds 43 percent of U.S. public schools have some form of security personnel patrolling their halls and grounds, a figure that rises to 63 and 64 percent, respectively, in public middle and high schools.

In addition to the school resource officer, the over-policing of American society has now given rise to a new figure: the educator-interrogator. 

As the Guardian noted last year and the New Yorker discussed recently, school administrators are increasingly being trained as interrogators to extract confessions from students for so-called "crimes"—most often, minor offenses from schoolyard scuffles to insubordination. Instruction in the interrogation arts is provided by John E. Reid and Associates, a global interrogation training firm that contracts with police departments, armed services divisions and security companies around the country. According to the New Yorker, the company has taught its patented “Reid Technique” to hundreds of school administrators in eight states. That training may be leading to an increasing number of students 'fessing up, even when they have nothing to confess to.

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As the New Yorker notes, “like the adult version of the Reid Technique, the school version involves three basic parts: an investigative component, in which you gather evidence; a behavioral analysis, in which you interview a suspect to determine whether he or she is lying; and a nine-step interrogation, a nonviolent but psychologically rigorous process that is designed, according to Reid’s workbook, ‘to obtain an admission of guilt.’”

Reid’s methods are built on what Bloomberg writer Drake Bennett calls “the twin poles of interrogation styles: ‘minimization’ and ‘maximization.'"

Forms of coercion that correspond, roughly, to “good cop, bad cop.” Minimization plays down the significance of the crime and offers potential excuses for it—“you just meant to scare her” or “anyone in your situation would have done the same thing.” Maximization plays it up, confrontationally presenting incriminating evidence and refusing to allow any response except a confession. The two are the most widely used tools in the American police interrogator toolkit.

The New Yorker spoke with Jessica Schneider, an attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who attended one of Reid’s educator-focused training sessions early last year. The instruction included a run-down of telltale body language signs indicating a student—or as they were referred to in the session, suspect or subject—is lying.

Many of these purported indicators can be found in Reid’s Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. The list includes “closed, retreated posture” (“crossed arms...reflect decreased confidence or lack of emotional involvement”), “constant forward lean” (“a controlling and defensive posture”) and “frozen and static” (“the subject who is so intent on not incriminating themselves...may, essentially ‘shut down’ nonverbally”). Interrogators are cautioned to look for poker-like deception “tells”—hand wringing, scratching, wiping sweat, knuckle popping. An anxious liar, according to the Reid Technique, is a squirmy liar.

One of the many problems with this approach is that it’s notoriously fallible. Typically nervous behaviors are not surefire indicators of guilt, mostly because there’s no universal litmus test for lying. Bennett points to a 2003 study from the Universities of Virginia and Missouri-Columbia which found that many of the behaviors associated with lying don’t necessarily tell us anything at all. “Behavioral cues that are discernible by human perceivers are associated with deceit only probabilistically,” researchers wrote. “To establish definitively that someone is lying, further evidence is needed.”

In other words, there is no definitive liar’s pose. TV police procedurals and cop movies get it wrong all the time, and when they expect similar results, so do real-life interrogators.

Minimization and maximization interrogation methods, like those used by Reid and others, are good at yielding confessions. But an increasing number of experts suggest that in far too many cases, those confessions are false, resulting from a blend of fear and coercion. Psychologist Melissa Russano devised a study that found the Reid Technique often produces false admissions of wrongdoing in innocent subjects. “Guilty people are more likely to confess,” Russano told Bennett. “The problem is, so are innocent people.”

That was certainly true in the case of Juan A. Rivera, who in 1993 was convicted to life in jail for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. After serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Rivera sued a number of law enforcement agencies and other organizations for $20 million, a figure he was granted in an out-of-court settlement. John E. Reid and Associates paid $2 million of that sum. The false confessions of the Central Park Five, who were all teenagers at the time of their arrests, were also likely obtained using Reid-derived methods. It’s no wonder the U.S. Supreme Court has written that “mounting empirical evidence” proves that certain forms of interrogation “can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.”

Another glaring issue is that children and adolescents are often easily influenced and compliant toward authority figures. They’re easy to intimidate and coerce, and often prioritize immediate rewards (having the interrogation end; getting to go home) over future penalties (suspension/expulsion/etc.)

The Innocence Project, highlighting figures provided by the National Registry of Exonerations, notes that “in the last 25 years, 38 percent of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by youth under 18 years of age involved false confessions, compared with 11 percent for adults.” A University of Virginia review of research on the subject found a study of exonerations between 1989 and 2004 discovered “42 percent of the cases of juvenile exonerees involved false confessions, compared with 13 percent of the cases of adult exonerees. Among the youngest of these juvenile exonerees (12- to 15-year-olds), 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.”

A 2013 American Prospect piece titled “Teacher, May I Plead the Fifth?” cites yet another example:

In a 2012 study of interrogations of around 300 juveniles charged with felonies in Minnesota—the largest such empirical study available—University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld found that, after suspects waived their Miranda rights, officers used maximization techniques in 69 percent of cases and minimization techniques in 15 percent. Seven percent of all the interrogations studied were performed in schools...In the Minnesota study, 93 percent of juveniles gave [their Miranda rights] up. Juveniles waive at such high rates either because they do not understand the warning, do not grasp the gravity of their situation, want to tell their side of the story, or are terrified, says Feld. After they start to talk, confessions almost always follow (88 percent of the time in the Minnesota study), making the state’s case easy to put together and often leading to a quick plea bargain.

These issues are particularly relevant in schools, where protocols such as reading kids their Miranda rights and securing authority for searches don’t apply.

There's also the highly important question of how transforming school administrators into interrogators informs their view of students. A 2009 study cited by the New Yorker suggests that among police, training in the Reid Technique skewed perceptions of juveniles, making them appear more adult and less trustworthy. University of Virginia psychologists reported that "Reid-trained police were less aware of the developmental differences between adolescents and adults than police who did not receive the training." The researchers also found that officers trained in the Reid Technique "tended to believe that adolescents were just as capable as adults of withstanding psychologically coercive questioning, including deceit." That's not a particularly surprising outcome to casting every student as a potential criminal. If even well-trained law enforcement personnel have their ideas about minors shifted in this way, imagine the likely impact interrogation training has on school administrators.

If all this isn’t enough to show how problematic interrogations in schools are, consider how the practice contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, a cluster of education policies that combine to deliver students—overwhelmingly poor, African American, Latino, or coping with physical and mental disabilities—directly from schools to jails. Zero-tolerance policies, which criminalize and disenfranchise already vulnerable students, have resulted in an unprecedented rise in suspensions and expulsions. The Vera Institute of Justice finds that around the country, the number of high school students suspended or expelled each academic year increased "from one in 13 in 1972-'73 to one in nine in 2009-'10”—a nearly 40 percent rise.

From preschool throughout their years of schooling, black and Latino students are more likely to be punished in this way. Though schools have multiple options for disciplining students, under zero tolerance they often resort to the harshest available, despite evidence that interventions such as counseling yield better results for student health than criminalization. From the Vera report:

A rigorous and detailed study of students in Texas published in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University shows how the culture of zero tolerance became so pervasive in that state that harsh punishments are meted out even when they are not strictly required. Twelve researchers tracked every student who entered seventh grade in 2000, 2001, and 2002 for six years. They found that more than half (60 percent) were suspended or expelled at some point in middle or high school. Moreover, the majority of those suspensions and expulsions appear to be for offenses that did not involve behaviors that fell within the parameters of the state of Texas zero-tolerance mandate; instead, they were simple violations of the school’s code of conduct, such as using tobacco or acting out in ways that teachers find to be disruptive. In other words, school administrators chose to use harsh punishments even when they had the discretion to do otherwise.

Considering that a 2012 study from Johns Hopkins found that a single suspension in ninth grade potentially doubles the chances a student will drop out, the stakes are incredibly high.

In 2014, the Obama administration suggested teachers and schools abandon zero-tolerance policies and consider less extreme actions. Even at the highest levels, there’s new recognition that turning schools into prisons simply isn’t working, and neither is turning educators into interrogators. Instituting low-grade forms of school-sanctioned terror just creates a culture of mutual distrust and antipathy and ensures that the first lesson kids learn in school is one rooted in fear. 

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.