The saddest, but best decision, out of the SCOTUS last week

Last week, six cases rained down on us in one day at the Supreme Court. While the church signs and “bath salts” opinions got our attention, as did the bizarre and tragic timing of the Confederate flag drivers license decision, none of those stayed with me the entirety of the weekend like Ohio v. Clark. This is a case that all teachers, administrators, and parents should know about. Last Thursday, the Supreme Court announced a critical decision about conversations between students and teachers in schools around the country.

Justice Alito, writing for the majority in Ohio v. Clark, detailed the disturbing case involving the abuse of an eighteen-month and three year old child. The older child, known as L.P., arrived at school one day with a black eye, belt marks on his back and stomach, and bruises all over his body. The baby also had black eyes and two pigtails had been ripped out at the roots of her hair. It gets worse. The abuser, Darius Clark, was the boyfriend and pimp of the children’s mother who’d sent her hundreds of miles away to work as a prostitute. Clark agreed to watch the children while she was gone.

Despondent and visibly shaken, L.P. went to school where two of his teachers immediately noticed his condition. When asked who was responsible for his injuries, L.P. replied Clark did this to him. Clark was eventually sentenced on five felony counts of assault, two counts of endangering the two children, and two counts of domestic violence. The only good news in this horrific story is that Clark is looking at spending the next 28 Father’s Days in prison.

The question that brought this case to the SCOTUS has to do with whether or not Clark’s 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses who testified against him was violated. Known as the “Confrontation Clause,” previous decisions prohibit “testimonial statements used in court by nontestifying witnesses.” The real question is whether or not L.P.’s testimony, the product of questions prompted by his teachers, was admissible during Clark’s trial. The child was considered too young to testify in court triggering this technical question of what exceptions, if any, there are to the Confrontation Clause.

Numerous other questions arise from this case about the roles teachers play when crises outside of school travel into the schoolhouse, mandatory reporting laws, and conversations between students and teachers.

Very few teachers would consider conversations between a student and themselves confidential. No such privilege shields any level of privacy between the teacher and their students. But, there have been times where confidential and seemingly private conversations occur because the teacher is the safest adult that child has to share painful, highly personal information with. In communities where parent involvement is often limited or even scarce, the teacher is sometimes the only consistent adult a child sees. Schools are safe places, havens where learning occurs, food is provided, and, in some cases, an escape from tragedy, negligence, or violence. Teachers are expected to support such conditions and report anything they hear or see that threatens students.  In loco parentis policies and mandatory reporting laws support such expectations. Teachers are also mandated reporters, which means the obligation to report neglect or physical abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services is required by law in many states.

No doubt there a days when students expect of their teachers what most expect of their parents – protection. If they’re not old enough, or too vulnerable and unable to speak up, it is the teacher’s responsibility to alert authorities and report on their behalf, as was the case with L.P.

Justice Alito, in a 9-0 opinion, said L.P.’s age was highly relevant to this case. A three-year old’s lack of even a basic knowledge and awareness of the justice system made his account of the abuse nontestimonial, thus not a violation of Clark’s 6th Amendment rights. The child’s words were not given with the intent to use as evidence later in a trial. There’s no way a three year old could’ve known the legal ramifications of his story. Additionally, although they are mandatory reporters, the teachers are not law enforcement officers and “statements to individuals who are not principally charged with uncovering and prosecuting criminal behavior are significantly less likely to be testimonial.”

Schools and parents everywhere breathed a sigh of relief about this correct and well-crafted opinion written by Alito, who was joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Ginsburg joined a concurrence written by Scalia and Thomas wrote his own concurrence. Alito paid a small but important tribute to L.P.’s teachers writing, “Like all good teachers, they undoubtedly would have acted with the same purpose whether or not they had a state-law duty to report abuse.”

Cara is a teacher and covers the Supreme Court. Follow her on Twitter @SupremeBystandr.