US Supreme Court Holds that Student’s Statement to Teacher can be Admitted at Trial

The U.S. Supreme Court (the “Court”) recently issued a unanimous decision as to whether or not prosecutors could introduce statements at trial when a child is not available for cross examination. The Court’s decision has implications for school districts when it seeks to introduce a student’s statements at a hearing without the student being available for questioning at the hearing.

In Ohio v. Clark, the Court was asked to review a decision by the Supreme Court of Ohio about testimony provided by a teacher at trial as to what a student told her concerning possible abuse from a caretaker. L.P., a three-year old child, was dropped off at preschool where a teacher noticed injuries on the student. When questioned, the student stated the nickname of his adult caretaker.  At trial the student’s statement was introduced by the prosecution but the child was not available to testify directly or be questioned by the defense. The defense moved to exclude L.P.’s testimony, which was denied by the trial court. Upon appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed.

In reversing the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court, the Court considered the application of the Confrontation Clause, which prohibits the introduction of statements by a non-testifying witness unless that witness is unavailable to testify and the defendant had a prior opportunity to question the witness. The Court looked as to whether or not the primary purpose of the conversation with the student was to gather evidence for the prosecution of the accused. Noting that the child’s statements occurred in the context of an ongoing emergency involving suspected child abuse, the Court held that “there is no indication that the primary purpose of the conversation was to gather evidence for [the defendant’s] prosecution.” In arriving at this decision, the Court went on to note that statements by your children “will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause.”

In its explanation of its decision, the Court noted that although it was not adopting a rule that statements to individuals who are not law enforcement officers are outside of the restrictions of the Confrontation Clause, it did find that the fact that the student “was speaking to his teachers remains highly relevant.” The Court noted that “it is common sense that the relationship between a student and his teacher is very different from that between a citizen and the police.” The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that Ohio’s mandatory reporting requirement served to equate the student’s teachers with the police, stating that it was “irrelevant” that the teacher’s questions and duty to report the matter had a tendency of resulting in the defendant’s prosecution.

The Court’s ruling has implications whenever a student, particularly a young student, provides statements to a teacher or administrator as part of an investigation. The possibility of a young student being questioned in the context of a hearing has always been a source of concern for school officials who seek to utilize the student’s statements. Although not a blanket rule, the Court’s decision does carve out instances where a student’s statements can be offered at a hearing without the need to make the student available for questioning.