At the end of a mostly mundane meeting of the Hamilton County Council of Parent Teacher Associations recently, President Dwight Hunter read a question to the five members present in a nearly empty room.
"If a principal agrees to allow a law enforcement officer to interrogate -- notice the word 'interrogate' there, and it doesn't give an age -- a student at school of an unrelated crime committed outside the school hours, must the principal first notify the child's parents?" Hunter asked.
As he read and commented on the question from the sheet in his hand, PTA member Katherine Smith and the other officers around the table nodded their heads, certain that the principal must call a parent.
Hunter then flipped to the next page of Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr.'s response.
"No," Hunter read.
"What?" Smith said.
"A principal does not have a legal duty to notify a child's parent if the child's interrogated at school by the police," Hunter said.
The Feb. 24 attorney general opinion went mostly unnoticed by those in local school, police or parental circles until those parties were contacted by the Times Free Press.
When Hunter asked the PTA parents what they thought, Dana Price, PTA secretary and mother of college-age children, didn't like it at all.
"I do not want my child in a room with a principal and police officers without me being notified or at least en route," Price said. "Kids don't have to speak, but they don't know that."
The other four PTA officers had similar comments; one said the only exception she would understand would be an immediate danger to students or the school.
But principals aren't required to allow such questioning at all, according to Cooper's opinion.
The question, and its answer, is specific to off-campus incidents that take place outside school hours.
Smith recounted an incident at a local school involving her nephew in which there had been a fight and another boy had brought a toy gun to school. She happened to be there as a PTA member and intervened when she saw the principal browbeating the student, she said.
"I'm here representing this kid," she said she told the school official. "Until his parents get here."
Smith said the child told her the school official was making him say things that weren't true and misinterpreting information.
Research indicates children are overwhelmingly likely to agree with authorities and even give false confessions when questioned by police.
Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett said there is no written policy that would require principals to notify parents before students are questioned. He said county principals are trained to make decisions regarding school safety and cooperating with police.
Bennett emphasized that situations such as the one detailed in the question are rare -- he could only remember dealing with one such instance -- but if there is a call for such a written policy, the school board could consider it. Bennett said he would advise that any new policy not limit the principal's discretion.
Asked about the opinion, Hamilton County school board member Jeffrey Wilson said he did not know that contacting parents was not required and it concerned him. If he's contacted by parents, he said, he will bring it before the board.
Fellow school board member Greg Martin said he trusted principals to look out for students.
"They're going to strike that balance with discretion with the children, what's in their best interest," Martin said.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said the system's officials want to cooperate with law enforcement but age is a factor. He addded that school resource officers in many of the schools have established relationships with staff and students, which maintains good relationships.
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Shaun Shepherd supervises the county's 18 school resource officers on 16 middle and high school campuses. Shepherd said that a child suspected of being involved in a crime is read his rights and asked to sign a rights waiver.
Even though they don't have to, he said, his officers attempt to contact parents before questioning students, though they will not wait indefinitely for a parent's response. He could not comment on policies of other area law enforcement.
Chattanooga police officer Jonathan Parker works as a resource officer in Brainerd High School. He, too, said the situation outlined in the opinion is rare; it may happen a few times a year. But the practice is to make a "good faith" effort to contact parents, he said.
That means calling any listed number. Police are not required to wait for a response.
But, Parker said, if a parent was contacted and said he or she didn't want their child questioned or wanted police to wait until they got there, he would honor the request.
Red Bank High School Principal Justin Robertson and East Hamilton School Principal Gail Chuy both said that they usually notify parents after a child is questioned but not before. Both cited safety concerns and ensuring cooperation with police so as not to impede an investigation.
These questioning scenarios worry Hamilton County Assistant District Public Defender Christian Coder.
"I've heard it over and over again [from parents]," Coder said. "'They didn't even call me.' Well, that doesn't seem right."
Coder said he's frequently heard accounts where a principal tells a student to write out his or her version of what happened.
"The next thing I know, that statement is being used as a sworn confession to prosecute them," Coder said.
Coder has worked in juvenile court for eight years and has one question -- if police were interrogating your child at school, "wouldn't you want to be present?"
The law appears to be the same in Georgia.
Rulings involving appeals of juvenile convictions in Georgia in 2007 and 2008 confirmed that a child's rights were not violated if parents weren't notified or present when police questioned a juvenile.
But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 said a child's age must be taken into account when that child waives his or her Miranda rights.
The case involved a 13-year-old, seventh-grade student in North Carolina who'd been questioned at school about two off-campus burglaries.
The boy at first denied any involvement. Police questioned him for 30 minutes without explaining his rights or contacting his guardian. But they did warn him about the possibility of juvenile detention, and he confessed.
University of Tennessee law professor Joy Radice sees such situations as changing, albeit slowly.
"I think the Constitution's trying to catch up with the science," Radice said. Research shows that children don't make decisions the way adults do. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited such findings in her opinion on the North Carolina case.
Radice, a former public defender in New York state, said many adults don't fully understand the consequences of waiving their right to remain silent or to have an attorney present for questioning. Juveniles would have even less understanding of the repercussions.
A 2000 legal research paper showed that New York, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Missouri, Maine, North Carolina and North Dakota have statutes requiring that a rights waiver be read, parents be notified or that parents be present before questioning can take place.
More recent research of current state laws on police questioning practices was not immediately available.
A 2013 Harvard Law Review article titled "Juvenile Miranda Waiver and Parental Rights" calls for an overhaul of police interaction with juveniles, especially in questioning.
The article cites research showing that juveniles are "prone to confessing falsely," accounting for one-third of all documented false confessions. The article cites research that indicates minorities are more susceptible to suffer disproportionately from police questioning.
"The mass incarceration of African-American males starts at an early age," the article states. "A common element of the school-to-prison pipeline is the questioning of juvenile suspects by police officers, often carried out in public schools."
The Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit group Black Organizing Project has been negotiating a document that would curtail some of the policing within its schools, group spokeswoman Misha Cornelius said.
A major sticking point has been police power to interrogate students without notifying parents, she said.
The group is asking simply that parents be notified and that questioning be delayed for an hour in non-emergency situations.
"You can go beyond what the law says," Cornelius said. "What's wrong with waiting?"
But even parent notification or presence may not solve opponents' concerns, according to Radice and the Harvard Law Review article.
"Oftentimes parents do not protect the juvenile and actually encourage them to talk to the police, which raises the question of whether parents are even the ultimate solution to the problems inherent in interrogating juveniles," Radice wrote in an email response.
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...