These Know Your Rights materials and linked resources discuss sensitive or triggering information on topics involving police and police violence. We recognize that Black, Indigenous, and Latine students including students with disabilities are more likely to attend policed schools. We also recognize that police have historically been used as a tool of government oppression which has resulted in the overcriminalization of and harm towards communities of color and the LGBTQ community. Please practice self-care while reviewing this Know Your Rights guide.
Police Interactions at School
What rights do I have at school in my interactions with police?
In general, you have the following rights as a student in California when you come into contact with a law enforcement officer:
- The right to remain silent
- The right to refuse a search, though they sometimes may still search you anyway
Note that every student, including non-citizens and undocumented students, have these rights. For more information on your right to refuse a search, check out our know your rights information for searches of students by visiting https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/searches-of-students/.
If police question me or arrest me while I’m at school, does my school have to contact my parent or guardian?
It depends. In California, there is no law that requires school staff to notify your parent or guardian if you are being questioned by the police. You can ask the police officer or school staff to have a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult present when interacting with the police.
However, your school is required to contact your parent or guardian if you are being arrested or removed from campus by the police.
Can a school police officer remove me from class for questioning?
Yes, depending on the circumstances.A police officer can remove you from class for questioning when they suspect a crime has occurred or may occur. You may also be removed from class if there are concerns you are being abused or neglected by a parent or guardian.
WHEN A POLICE OFFICER WANTS TO QUESTION STUDENTS AT SCHOOL
What should I do if a school police officer stops and questions me?
Talking to the police can be stressful and scary. The following information is intended to help you avoid a potentially harmful or traumatic situation when interacting with the police. If you are stopped and questioned by school police, ….
- DO ask if you are free to go. You can ask “Am I free to leave?” If they say no, ask “am I under arrest?”
- DO exercise your right to remain silent. You can say, “I want to remain silent” and then do not answer their questions except for providing your name and age if they ask.
- DO remain calm.
- DO ask why you are being questioned.
- DO ask to consult with an attorney. You can say, “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
Also keep in mind that if you decide to answer an officer’s questions then the statements you make can later be used against you or someone else. If, however, you start to answer some questions and then change your mind, that’s okay. You do not lose your right to remain silent.
When a police officer questions anybody, including a student, it is an adversarial or hostile process, such that the officer, who may try to appear friendly, trustworthy, understanding, or kind or on the side of the student, ultimately is not on your side. You cannot assume that a police officer will act or behave in a way that protects your safety or respects your rights. However, you can reduce the risk of harm towards yourself by staying calm. For example, you can calmly repeat your right to remain silent if an officer is trying to convince you to talk to them. You can also remain calm by not running away or resisting the police even when you know they are wrong.
A police officer may try to intimidate you or convince you to confess to committing a crime. Remember that your right to remain silent includes the right NOT to confess to a crime. For this reason, it is important that you do not write or sign any kind of confession until you can talk to an attorney. It is also helpful to remember the name or badge number of the officer who is questioning you in case you need to later file a complaint.
Is there anything I should NOT do if the police stop and question?
If you are stopped and questioned by school police, . . .
- DON’T lie. If you aren’t sure about what to say, just remain silent. You can say, “I want to remain silent” and then do not answer their questions except for providing your name and age if they ask.
- DON’T run away or physically resist an officer.
- DON’T give an officer any personal information about yourself like your address except for providing your name and age if they ask.
- DON’T share your immigration or citizenship status.
You do not have to explain yourself to a police officer. You do not have to make up an excuse or story when being questioned. Instead, tell the officer that you do not want to talk to them. Lying to an officer can be considered a crime but remaining silent is not. Keep in mind that refusing to answer is not lying, even if you know the answer to the question the officer is asking.
If a school police officer starts to question me, can I refuse to answer?
Yes. You can refuse to answer a police officer’s questions because you have the constitutional right to remain silent. A police officer cannot arrest, detain, or punish you for refusing to answer their questions.
If you want to remain silent, then you should make this clear by saying it out loud. For example, you can say “I have the right to remain silent” or “I want to remain silent.”
If a school police officer starts to question me, what else can I do besides say I want to remain silent?
You can ask the officer if you free to go. You can ask, “Am I free to go?”
If the officer says “yes,” then leave.
If the officer says “no,” then ask them to explain why they stopped you. You can say, “Can you tell me why you are stopping me?” If they say “no” and continue to ask you questions, or interrogate you, you are now part of a “custodial interrogation” and you have the rights described below.
You can also ask to have a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult present when interacting with the police.
Can police take my phone away from me for an extended period of time?
Yes, but only if they have a warrant or if there is an emergency.
If a police officer takes your phone away from you, it is referred to as a seizure or confiscation of your phone. A phone confiscation becomes unlawful and violates your constitutional rights when the phone is confiscated for an extended period of time without a warrant.
Generally, police may only seize your phone if they obtained a warrant. However, police can also seize your phone in limited circumstances if there is an emergency that poses imminent danger or serious physical injury. In such cases, law enforcement is required to seek a warrant within a reasonable period of time following the seizure of the property.
If a phone is obtained without a warrant, law enforcement must work to obtain a warrant. Law enforcement must obtain the warrant within a reasonable period and without delay. Any delay in obtaining a warrant can become unreasonable depending on the duration of the delay.
If your phone is confiscated without a warrant, you can contact law enforcement to ask that your phone be returned. If the police refuse to return your phone, you should ask whether they have obtained a warrant. Police cannot continue to retain your phone for an extended period without a warrant.
CUSTODIAL INTERROGATIONS AND ARRESTS
Is there a difference between being “taken into custody” and being arrested?
Yes, there is a difference between being taken into custody and being arrested. Both involve interacting with the police. However, an arrest occurs when you are charged with a crime. When you are under arrest, an officer might place you in handcuffs and remove you from school to transport you to a police station or juvenile hall.
You can be “in custody” without having been arrested. For example, you can be removed from class by a police officer and taken to another place to be questioned. If you do not feel free to leave the room or space you’re in because the door is closed, or you are not allowed to leave when you ask permission to do so, then you are in custody. Once you are “in custody” and if the officer begins questioning you, that means you are a part of a “custodial interrogation.” Unlike an arrest, you may not be in handcuffs or taken somewhere else like a police station when you are in custody. If you are not sure, you should ask the police officer “am I free to leave?” or “am I under arrest?” If you are not free to leave, then you are in custody.
What rights do I have when I am in custody?
If you are in custody and 17 years old or younger, you have the right to speak to an attorney before police can question you. If an officer does not offer this to you, then it is important that you tell them. You can say, “I’d like to speak to an attorney.” The right to speak with an attorney is available to anyone under the age of 18 regardless of whether you can afford it. If you ask to speak with an attorney, the officer must then contact the local public defender’s office. In some counties like Los Angeles, this service is available through a 24-hour hotline.
Remember that a police officer does not have to contact your parent/guardian before they question you. However, you can still ask for your parent or guardian to be contacted and present during any questioning even when this is not offered to you.
If you are in police custody, you also have the right to remain silent.
Can the statements I make to a school police officer when I am in custody later be used against me?
Yes, but the police officer must first inform you of your Miranda rights. A police officer is required to tell you the following:
- You have the right to remain silent.
- Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
- You have the right to speak with an attorney.
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you for free.
Note that a police officer does not have to provide Miranda warnings exactly as stated here so long as you understand those rights. However, be prepared to know your Miranda rights and assert them. A police officer may disagree with your understanding of your rights, but it is not your responsibility to convince them otherwise. It is important to assert your right to remain silent even if a police officer does not inform you of your Miranda rights as mentioned above.
What should I do if I am arrested by a school police officer?
If you are arrested by police at school, ….
- DO exercise your right to remain silent. You can say, “I want to remain silent.”
- DO ask for a lawyer. You can say, “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
- DO ask for your parent or guardian to be contacted.
- DO ask why you are being arrested.
- DO your best to stay calm and keep yourself physically safe by not resisting the officers.
Is there anything I should NOT do if a school police officer arrests me?
If you are arrested by school police, . . .
- DON’T run away or physically resist the officer who is placing you under arrest.
- DON’T discuss your arrest or the events leading up to your arrest on the phone. The police may be recording any calls you make to a family member or friend. Police may not record calls you make with your lawyer.
- DON’T give the police more information than necessary except your name, grade level, and birthday.
- DON’T lie to the police. You also do not have to give a police officer any explanations, excuses or stories about yourself or anyone else.
- DON’T share your immigration or citizenship status with anyone other than a lawyer.
Can the police search me after I am arrested?
Yes. A police officer does not need a warrant to search you once you have been placed under arrest. This is called a “search incident to lawful arrest.”
In all other circumstances, including if you are “in custody,” however, the police officer would need “probable cause” to search you. “Probable cause” means that an officer has a reasonable belief, based on facts specific to your situation, that a crime has or will likely be committed.
Note that this is different from a situation in which a school official, like a school principal, searches you without your consent. In those situations, a school official would only need “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a search, which means they reasonably believe you broke a law or school rule. To learn more about searches at school, visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/searches-of-students/.
If I am being interrogated by someone else at my school like a principal, do they also have to inform me of my Miranda rights?
No. School personnel like principals can question you without providing any Miranda warnings. What you say to school staff may also be used against you later.
To learn more about searches at school, visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/searches-of-students/. To learn about searches of your cell phone and other digital devices, visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/cell-phone-privacy/.
What about a situation where a school staff member and a police officer are together when they are questioning me?
It depends. If a school administrator like a principal is questioning you on behalf of a police officer, or if the police officer is directing the interrogation, then you must be informed of your Miranda rights. If, however, a school administrator is doing most of the questioning in a police officer’s presence, then they may not be required to give you any Miranda warnings.
If I believe my rights were violated by a school police officer, what should I do?
School districts can be held accountable for the discriminatory actions of their staff including school police and security officers. If you believe that a school police officer discriminated against you based on, for example, your race, gender, or disability, then you can choose to file a formal complaint. Depending on the circumstances, you can file the complaint with your school or district. For more information on this, check out our know your rights information on the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) by visiting https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/file-a-complaint-with-your-school/.
A complaint can also be filed with the Federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). For more information, visit our website at https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/file-a-complaint-with-office-for-civil-rights/.
You can also file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights if you are a student with disabilities and believe your school has discriminated against you because of your disability. For more information on your rights as a student with disabilities, visit https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/student-disability-rights/.
You can also file a complaint with the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Children’s Justice. For more information, visit https://oag.ca.gov/bcj/complaint. If you have a complaint against a specific officer, you can also file a complaint with the law enforcement agency where they are employed. In California, every law enforcement agency is required to have its own policies and procedures in place to investigate officer misconduct.
BACKGROUND: HOW DOES SCHOOL POLICING WORK?
How have police been used as a part of a system of oppression in schools?
School police have existed since the 1940s and during that time were used as a tool to suppress civil rights movements seeking to end racial segregation in schools. In recent decades, police presence in schools has increased in response to tragic events like the shooting that occurred at Columbine High School. According to some local, state and federal agencies, the purpose of school police is to prevent crime and keep schools safe. In practice, however, school police do not prevent or stop mass school shootings from occurring. Such tragic events are, in fact, exceedingly rare.
What are police officers at a school called?
Depending on your school or district, a school police officer may be referred to as a school police officer, school resource officer (SRO), or school safety officer (SSO). SROs or school police may be armed, meaning they can carry a firearm.
What does a police officer do at a school?
Generally, police officer’s primary duties are to interrogate, detain, and arrest people for alleged crimes.
It is important to remember that school police officers, who are often erroneously described as informal counselors, teachers, or emergency responders, are law enforcement agents. Unlike a school-based mental health (SBMH) provider, a school police officer is not the appropriate person to respond to a student who may be experiencing a crisis and/or struggling with their mental health. For more information about SBMH providers that can offer mental health support at your school check out our know your rights information for student mental health rights by visiting https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/student-mental-health-rights.
Do all schools have their own police?
It depends on your school district. In general, there are three types of relationships a school may have with the police. First, school districts can have their own police department. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, runs the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD). As sworn officers, a school police officer can question, detain, or arrest a student like any other police officer.
Second, a school district can enter into an agreement, otherwise known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with a county or city law enforcement agency. The MOU oftentimes requires a city police department or sheriff’s office to station officers at school sites.
Third, school districts that do not have their own police department or a MOU may contact a local police department for an officer to respond to the school on a case-by-case basis. Note that some schools may have a hybrid system. For example, in the San Jose Unified School District, the police chief is an employee of the school district but officers located at the school work for the city police department. Keep in mind that some school districts may also have school security officers that are like security guards and perform some of the same functions as a police officer such as acting as security at football games.
What is reported to the police and who reports it?
School staff can report anything to law enforcement but are mandated (meaning required by the law) to report certain incidents like a situation where there is an actual and immediate threat to a student, teacher or the public’s safety. For example, a teacher would have to report an assault that occurs on campus or a physical threat made towards a school staff member. However, the threat of serious physical injury must be imminent for police to get involved meaning that must be immediately addressed. (Unfortunately, sometimes school personnel may call police for many and more minor reasons.) School personnel are also required to report even minor incidents like a student’s possession of cannabis or alcohol.
In addition to this, school staff, specifically mental health professionals (e.g., therapist, school psychologist, school counselor, social worker), are required to seek help when they determine you are a “danger” to yourself. Whether you are a “danger” could be based on several reasons like prior attempts to end your own life or expressing that you are having suicidal thoughts. Ideally, your local or county’s crisis care unit would be contacted to determine whether you need further evaluation or treatment at a hospital. However, in some counties these resources do not exist or may otherwise be unavailable. As a result, the police may be contacted because officers are authorized under the law to decide whether hospitalization is necessary.
Is there anything I can do to advocate for my school to be police-free?
Yes. As a student, you can play an important role in advocating for change at your school or district. For more information and resources, check out our campus police toolkit by visiting our website at https://www.aclusocal.org/en/campaigns/campus-police-toolkit#step-one.
RESOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION
- ACLU’s My School, My Rights website for information about student rights on multiple topics, like LGBTQ student rights, rights of students experiencing homelessness, cell phone privacy, immigrant student rights, and more, www.myschoolmyrights.com
- ACLU, Bullies in Blue: Origins and Consequences of School Policing, https://www.aclu.org/report/bullies-blue-origins-and-consequences-school-policing.
- ACLU Foundations of California, No Police in Schools Report, https://www.aclunc.org/sites/default/files/no_police_in_schools_-_report_-_aclu_-_082421.pdf.
- ACLU Foundations of California, The Right to Remain a Student: How CA School Policies Fail to Protect and Serve, https://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161019-the_right_to_remain_a_student-aclu_california_0.pdf.
- ACLU NorCal, Know Your Rights: Police Interactions, https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/know-your-rights/know-your-rights-police-interactions (English) and https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/know-your-rights/tus-derechos-ante-la-polic (Spanish)
- ACLU NorCal, Police At School: Your Rights as a Student, https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Police-At-School-Your-Rights-As-A-Student.pdf.
- National Center for Youth Law, SB 203 Miranda Rights for Youth, https://youthlaw.org/resources/miranda-rights.