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Changes to policy on student interrogations goes before New Hanover County school board

Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 6:14 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A policy about whether or not parents need to be contacted before police question kids at school is among the policy updates to be addressed Tuesday at the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting.

At last month’s board policy committee meeting, leaders first discussed changes to policy 5120, which lays out the district’s relationship with law enforcement.

The new policy publicly discussed in the June 8 meeting added the wording “When law enforcement officials find it necessary to question students on campus or take them into custody, the principal or designee shall make an effort to notify the parent or guardian of the student, unless requested not to do so by the law enforcement official. If the student is taken into custody of the law enforcement officials, the superintendent’s office must be notified.”

That verbiage worried leaders with advocacy groups like New Hanover County Educational Justice.

Angie Kahney, who signed up to speak at Tuesday night’s meeting, believes its not fair for kids to be expected to understand what’s happening and advocate for themselves without having the opportunity to have their guardian present.

“When someone with a badge and a gun is asking them questions they don’t always know how to answer. Sometimes kids are even giving written statements or verbal statements, sometimes there’s a statement prepared for them and there’s a statement there to sign and they don’t understand what they’re signing,” said Kahney. ”They don’t wanna be disrespectful to adults, let alone adults of authority.”

While WECT was awaiting comments from school board officials about the proposed changes, leaders announced the wording on that policy had changed ahead of the school board meeting.

New changes to the policy up for first reading were made public to WECT at 3:45 p.m., less than two hours before the regular board meeting was slated to begin.

Nelson Beaulieu passed along the newest changes to 5120 and issued the following statement via email Tuesday afternoon:

“The New Hanover County Board of Education aims to continually improve the quality of education for our students and ensure that our staff and educators have the resources they need to create a safe and positive learning environment for everyone. In addition, the Board of Education recognized the importance of law enforcement authorities and the service and protection they provide to the district.

The new changes reference an agreement between the school district and the sheriffs office, called a memorandum of understanding, and give the district specific policies about how officers would question, search or arrest students.

According to the MOU, school officials would notify parents if their child is suspected of criminal wrongdoing or questions them.

If a student is interrogated, a school official would have to be present during the questioning, unless the officer directs otherwise for “safety or investigative reasons.”

Leaders with New Hanover Count Educational Justice say they know of several instances where kids have been searched or questioned about something they saw, like a fight at school, without their parents being contacted.

Kahney says the conversation about who questions students is especially important for our district, given its history of school sex scandals.

“We have had kids that fully disclose and have adults, whether they’re staff members or school resource officers, to intimidate and sway that process a little bit, so when they completely take those disclosures back, we can’t even use those in cases in court or throughout the whole process of holding those abusers accountable,” said Kahney.

Policy 5120 is only up for first reading Tuesday night, meaning no changes will go into effect this week.

Having the policy go before the board for first reading allows board members to bring up comments or questions that have about the policy, and send it back to committee if need be. If the policy passes Tuesday night, it will move forward to second reading at the next regular board meeting.

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