Why Are K-12 School Leaders Being Trained in Coercive Interrogation Techniques?

Lambert here: To prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow?

By Kali Holloway, senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet. Originally published at AlterNet.

One of America’s great paradoxes (or perhaps hypocrisies) is its claim to be a global beacon of freedom, even as it jails more of its citizens—by population percentage and in raw numbers—than any other country in the world. This tendency toward suspicion, hyper-enforcement and punishment is so pervasive it even trickles down to our kids. CNN cites a National Center for Education Statistics report that finds 43 percent of U.S. public schools have some form of security personnel patrolling their halls and grounds, a figure that rises to 63 and 64 percent, respectively, in public middle and high schools.

In addition to the school resource officer, the over-policing of American society has now given rise to a new figure: the educator-interrogator. 

As the Guardian noted last year and the New Yorker discussed recently, school administrators are increasingly being trained as interrogators to extract confessions from students for so-called “crimes”—most often, minor offenses from schoolyard scuffles to insubordination. Instruction in the interrogation arts is provided by John E. Reid and Associates, a global interrogation training firm that contracts with police departments, armed services divisions and security companies around the country. According to the New Yorker, the company has taught its patented “Reid Technique” to hundreds of school administrators in eight states. That training may be leading to an increasing number of students ‘fessing up, even when they have nothing to confess to.

As the New Yorker notes, “like the adult version of the Reid Technique, the school version involves three basic parts: an investigative component, in which you gather evidence; a behavioral analysis, in which you interview a suspect to determine whether he or she is lying; and a nine-step interrogation, a nonviolent but psychologically rigorous process that is designed, according to Reid’s workbook, ‘to obtain an admission of guilt.’”

Reid’s methods are built on what Bloomberg writer Drake Bennett calls “the twin poles of interrogation styles: ‘minimization’ and ‘maximization.'”

Forms of coercion that correspond, roughly, to “good cop, bad cop.” Minimization plays down the significance of the crime and offers potential excuses for it—“you just meant to scare her” or “anyone in your situation would have done the same thing.” Maximization plays it up, confrontationally presenting incriminating evidence and refusing to allow any response except a confession. The two are the most widely used tools in the American police interrogator toolkit.

The New Yorker spoke with Jessica Schneider, an attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who attended one of Reid’s educator-focused training sessions early last year. The instruction included a run-down of telltale body language signs indicating a student—or as they were referred to in the session, suspect or subject—is lying.

Many of these purported indicators can be found in Reid’s Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. The list includes “closed, retreated posture” (“crossed arms…reflect decreased confidence or lack of emotional involvement”), “constant forward lean” (“a controlling and defensive posture”) and “frozen and static” (“the subject who is so intent on not incriminating themselves…may, essentially ‘shut down’ nonverbally”). Interrogators are cautioned to look for poker-like deception “tells”—hand wringing, scratching, wiping sweat, knuckle popping. An anxious liar, according to the Reid Technique, is a squirmy liar.

One of the many problems with this approach is that it’s notoriously fallible. Typically nervous behaviors are not surefire indicators of guilt, mostly because there’s no universal litmus test for lying. Bennett points to a 2003 study from the Universities of Virginia and Missouri-Columbia which found that many of the behaviors associated with lying don’t necessarily tell us anything at all. “Behavioral cues that are discernible by human perceivers are associated with deceit only probabilistically,” researchers wrote. “To establish definitively that someone is lying, further evidence is needed.”

In other words, there is no definitive liar’s pose. TV police procedurals and cop movies get it wrong all the time, and when they expect similar results, so do real-life interrogators.

Minimization and maximization interrogation methods, like those used by Reid and others, are good at yielding confessions. But an increasing number of experts suggest that in far too many cases, those confessions are false, resulting from a blend of fear and coercion. Psychologist Melissa Russano devised a study that found the Reid Technique often produces false admissions of wrongdoing in innocent subjects. “Guilty people are more likely to confess,” Russano told Bennett. “The problem is, so are innocent people.”

That was certainly true in the case of Juan A. Rivera, who in 1993 was convicted to life in jail for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. After serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Rivera sued a number of law enforcement agencies and other organizations for $20 million, a figure he was granted in an out-of-court settlement. John E. Reid and Associates paid $2 million of that sum. The false confessions of the Central Park Five, who were all teenagers at the time of their arrests, were also likely obtained using Reid-derived methods. It’s no wonder the U.S. Supreme Court has written that “mounting empirical evidence” proves that certain forms of interrogation “can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.”

Another glaring issue is that children and adolescents are often easily influenced and compliant toward authority figures. They’re easy to intimidate and coerce, and often prioritize immediate rewards (having the interrogation end; getting to go home) over future penalties (suspension/expulsion/etc.)

The Innocence Project, highlighting figures provided by the National Registry of Exonerations, notes that “in the last 25 years, 38 percent of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by youth under 18 years of age involved false confessions, compared with 11 percent for adults.” A University of Virginia review of research on the subject found a study of exonerations between 1989 and 2004 discovered “42 percent of the cases of juvenile exonerees involved false confessions, compared with 13 percent of the cases of adult exonerees. Among the youngest of these juvenile exonerees (12- to 15-year-olds), 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.”

A 2013 American Prospect piece titled “Teacher, May I Plead the Fifth?” cites yet another example:

In a 2012 study of interrogations of around 300 juveniles charged with felonies in Minnesota—the largest such empirical study available—University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld found that, after suspects waived their Miranda rights, officers used maximization techniques in 69 percent of cases and minimization techniques in 15 percent. Seven percent of all the interrogations studied were performed in schools…In the Minnesota study, 93 percent of juveniles gave [their Miranda rights] up. Juveniles waive at such high rates either because they do not understand the warning, do not grasp the gravity of their situation, want to tell their side of the story, or are terrified, says Feld. After they start to talk, confessions almost always follow (88 percent of the time in the Minnesota study), making the state’s case easy to put together and often leading to a quick plea bargain.

These issues are particularly relevant in schools, where protocols such as reading kids their Miranda rights and securing authority for searches don’t apply.

There’s also the highly important question of how transforming school administrators into interrogators informs their view of students. A 2009 study cited by the New Yorker suggests that among police, training in the Reid Technique skewed perceptions of juveniles, making them appear more adult and less trustworthy. University of Virginia psychologists reported that “Reid-trained police were less aware of the developmental differences between adolescents and adults than police who did not receive the training.” The researchers also found that officers trained in the Reid Technique “tended to believe that adolescents were just as capable as adults of withstanding psychologically coercive questioning, including deceit.” That’s not a particularly surprising outcome to casting every student as a potential criminal. If even well-trained law enforcement personnel have their ideas about minors shifted in this way, imagine the likely impact interrogation training has on school administrators.

If all this isn’t enough to show how problematic interrogations in schools are, consider how the practice contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, a cluster of education policies that combine to deliver students—overwhelmingly poor, African American, Latino, or coping with physical and mental disabilities—directly from schools to jails. Zero-tolerance policies, which criminalize and disenfranchise already vulnerable students, have resulted in an unprecedented rise in suspensions and expulsions. The Vera Institute of Justice finds that around the country, the number of high school students suspended or expelled each academic year increased “from one in 13 in 1972-’73 to one in nine in 2009-’10”—a nearly 40 percent rise.

From preschool throughout their years of schooling, black and Latino students are more likely to be punished in this way. Though schools have multiple options for disciplining students, under zero tolerance they often resort to the harshest available, despite evidence that interventions such as counseling yield better results for student health than criminalization. From the Vera report:

A rigorous and detailed study of students in Texas published in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University shows how the culture of zero tolerance became so pervasive in that state that harsh punishments are meted out even when they are not strictly required. Twelve researchers tracked every student who entered seventh grade in 2000, 2001, and 2002 for six years. They found that more than half (60 percent) were suspended or expelled at some point in middle or high school. Moreover, the majority of those suspensions and expulsions appear to be for offenses that did not involve behaviors that fell within the parameters of the state of Texas zero-tolerance mandate; instead, they were simple violations of the school’s code of conduct, such as using tobacco or acting out in ways that teachers find to be disruptive. In other words, school administrators chose to use harsh punishments even when they had the discretion to do otherwise.

Considering that a 2012 study from Johns Hopkins found that a single suspension in ninth grade potentially doubles the chances a student will drop out, the stakes are incredibly high.

In 2014, the Obama administration suggested teachers and schools abandon zero-tolerance policies and consider less extreme actions. Even at the highest levels, there’s new recognition that turning schools into prisons simply isn’t working, and neither is turning educators into interrogators. Instituting low-grade forms of school-sanctioned terror just creates a culture of mutual distrust and antipathy and ensures that the first lesson kids learn in school is one rooted in fear. 

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. James Levy

    An almost unquestioned but utterly pernicious fact is that when they empowered cops to lie to people in order to trick them they knocked a critical block out from under the citizen-government edifice. No government official should ever be allowed to lie to a citizen. This is pure ends justify the means immorality. And the only way I can trust the police is by willfully ignoring the basic fact that everything they say could be a lie. This leads to the kind of mental gymnastics that excuses the worst kinds of behavior in the name of efficiency and safety. The government is not, first and foremost, in existence to be efficient or make me safe. It is there to protect my rights and be a conduit for collective democratic action. That’s why, the Founders told us, governments were instituted among men.

    1. Ulysses

      Excellent comment!

      Our Republic was supposed to be a place where citizens could be proud of their representative government, which was directly accountable to them. The sad truth is that we are now much closer to being subjects of our ruling class, than we are to being citizens of a democratic republic.

      The only power that the corporate power structure still allows, to average people, is a very limited amount of “consumer choice.” Coke or Pepsi, D. or R., crappy high-deductible plan A or B. “We set the menu. Your freedom consists in making a selection from it.”

      Never have so many been so screwed over for the benefit of so few!!

      1. Massinissa

        Remember that originally, ‘citizens’ were white men owned property. Anyone else was excluded.

        I hate to say it, but America has always been run by wealthy oligarchs. We just lionize the first few and gave them a fancy name.

        1. juliania

          Half truth at best, Massinissa. Washington and Hamilton did well for themselves; they were not oligarchs. Neither was Jefferson, in spite of his lifestyle. Neither was Lincoln. Neither was Kennedy.

          Oligarchs are in it for the money and the power. They are not public servants. These men were.

      2. Synoia

        The sad truth is that we are now much closer to being subjects of our ruling class

        I’ve never though that quite accurate. This, I believe, is a more accurate representation:

        The sad truth is that we are now much closer to being objects to our ruling class

  2. cnchal

    Waterboarding and physical torture of children is next, particularly after the child fails to confess using mental torture. Soon a prison contractor will find an expansive new business model installing house of horrors questioning rooms at a school near you.

    That supposedly educated school administrators lap this idiocy up is a clear indicator of education failure on a mass scale, and that far too much money is wasted on gargantuan administrative overhead.

    The police state marches on indeed! Hobnail boots march the hallways of schools and children are not fooled by their menacing presence and it’s message. Government is evil.

      1. cnchal

        Of course. But I wonder how long before charter schools get their own police department and room 101s?

  3. ke

    Ah, the Gestapo. By the time the kids are old enough to vote, it’s normal, expected background noise, and the trouble makers don’t accept it as normal. Funny, what’s in those school records. Government is public only so long as you don’t ask any real questions.

    Most never ask a real question, and see no evil.

    1. washunate

      Yet that’s what is changing, too. The police state practices have been so widespread for so long that we have adults today who experienced this as kids and simply don’t accept the establishment lines on the benefits of authoritarianism. They don’t see it as normal in an accepting way. Rather, they see it as a fundamental failure of our society across educational, religious, legal, and social institutions. They do ask questions. And demand that things change. It’s why Democratic politicians laugh at drug war questions and why Democratic intellectuals don’t see coercion and violence anywhere and why Millennials are routinely accused of having some kind of mentally ill entitlement syndrome.

      Young people are rejecting the whole totalitarian mindset upon which the present ‘liberal’ order depends.

  4. Bas

    “Educators” are not trained in the many characteristics of “neuro-atypical” students (I just love that term, picked up on Elementary, the TV show, as I am neuro-atypical myself, undiagnosed, just hounded as “different” in school by “neuro-typicals”). It is a crime in itself to use a rigid external model on the general, young and developing population. Does it really make it easier for the schools? I think not. At least I was just criticized, not made to confess to crimes. I hate to think what hell it is to be a child in some public schools today.

  5. ke

    I had so many brothers that the Nazis were always waiting for me, with a plan, which was always peer pressure. Funny, when you study harder than anyone else, you are a nonconformer, and the equal rights regime isn’t so rosy.

    Trump says there’s no housing bubble, Sanders want government to issue free drugs, and Hillary says that the community owns your children. Pledge allegiance to what was my question, and the Elementary “educators” weren’t ready for that.

  6. digi_owl

    The thing about freedom is that it is a “vague” word.

    USA, as best this foreigner can tell, was founded on the concept of freedom from interference. In the national instance, freedom from the taxes and such decreed from London. On the personal level, freedom to operate your property as you see fit.

    But since the founding, USA have at times switched to a “freedom to” thinking. This leading to robber barons and similar coming forth.

    Since the 80s, this “freedom to” has held sway over the nation. and is also the kind of freedom being pushed on other nations. Either via economic means, or militarily. In all cases granting (nominally) US corporations the freedom to exploit nations and people with impunity.

    1. ke

      Empire is an artificial clock entrainment system, with collective ignorance as the master oscillator. We left the ghetto, recreated it over here, and exported it, in those black boxes replacing people with machines. At least the Italians can still grow real food, for now.

    2. SqueakyRat

      “Freedom from” and “freedom to” are not so easily separable. Your “freedom to operate your property as you see fit” easily impinges — especially if you have a vast quantity of property — on other people’s freedom to so much as exist. What are you imagining? A little bucolic paradise where each virtuous freeholder cultivates his own garden and leaves everyone else unaffected? That isn’t the real world, friend.

      1. ke

        The data clearly demonstrates that public education, public healthcare and Wall Street do not affect economic mobility, and at the system level have a large negative correlation, yet the politicians and their supporters continue to argue otherwise, consistent with demographic bias.

        The empire “invented” it’s clock 5000 years ago, and has failed to prove it works ever since, because time is not unidirectional. Nature ensure degeneration under empire conditions.

    3. weinerdog43

      I think what most Americans think, but can’t articulate very well is what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that freedom meant “…the right to be left alone… is the most comprehensive of rights…”

      We like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists except our fellow countrymen have issues, so we need to impose our will on them. Our current brain dead Supreme Court thinks that corporations are people my friend, so heck yeah, our corporations are free to exploit anyone, anywhere.

  7. Take the Fork

    You watch: Very soon these techniques will be turned on the kindergartner whose “insubordination” will be the thoughtcrime of not understanding, accepting, and celebrating the boy whose legal guardians have sent him to school in a skirt. This will, in turn, lead officials to the transphobic child’s parents.

      1. Take the Fork

        Those are three very different ideas, but my trusty Magic 8-Ball answered “Signs point to yes” and I think that is right.

        In a year’s time this hypothetical boy, if he attends a public school in California, may choose to identify with his actually existing anatomy. When this puts him in conflict with his guardians’ notions of what his best for him, as revealed through enhanced interrogation, what shape do you think state intervention will take?

        1. Bas

          If anything, I see the attempt to legislate heterosexuality, and subjugation of women to the State, right now. The other I see as consciousness-raising for acceptance of differences and tolerance, not being threatened to the point of criminalizing anything not resembling heterosexuality. It’s very sad that raising awareness of different sexual identities is seen as coercion to join in. Personally, I think that the hard-core bible-thumpers are so afraid their gay family members will find a place where they feel they belong, and thereby come out and bring terrible shame on the family. They must suppress this at all costs!

          1. Take the Fork

            Noted. But I answered your question, simply and clearly. Now please answer mine: in the scenario I posited, what shape do you think state intervention will take?

            Or, if you prefer, what intervention do you think state intervention ought to take?

            Remember, this is an actually existing law in California, where there seems to be no danger of legislated heterosexuality and subjugation of women to the state, right now.

            If a six-year-old and his legal guardians are at odds over gender selection, what is to be done?

            1. Bas

              I have no answer in a hypothetical case. But in my experience, you can’t make someone be what they are not, and the child will just continue to be what he is, no matter what the adults around him tell him to do.

    1. Ivy

      The next step will be home schooler certifications of completion for interrogation-related work. Now, is there some PE plan underway for how to monetize that?

    1. Yves Smith

      I’ve been reluctant to run this because even though true, this originally came from a site that is one of the leaders in the charter movement. In other words, this is to urge parents get parents out of those horrible supposedly dangerous public schools and into those charters that have their ways for keeping or getting troublesome students out.

      In addition, I’m mot sure all these counselors are value added. Forbes in the 1990 (well before charters) did some work on why public school costs were going up way faster than inflation. It was all adminisphere bloat. And you didn’t see similar trends in Catholic schools.

    2. SKL

      I’ve seen public libraries (the two Toronto central reference libraries, for instance) where guards outnumber librarians 2:1. The average penitentiary isn’t that locked-down.

  8. ke

    You did see the problem England has created for itself by kidnapping children for noncompliance and building a runaway arrhythmic system?

    1. ke

      WS loves to print money for schools, with spending conditions.
      The social workers that take the kids also foster and adopt them, for a six figure income plus multiple pensions plus subsidized loans. It’s quite the racket. School psychologists…

  9. ekstase

    “Reid-trained police were less aware of the developmental differences between adolescents and adults than police who did not receive the training.”

    This is kind of like the study that found that Fox News viewers knew less about the world than people who watched no news.

  10. Russell Scott Day/Founder of Transcendia

    The mission of police in the schools ought be nothing but protective of the place now that it is too common for students and teachers to be murdered en masse.

    The socialization of children is something the great principals know how to achieve and the presence of puffed up police out to get the kids for something is nothing but meddling.

    The reality is that kids need to be loved and given goals and missions. The mission is to educate and that is something that requires the student to want to learn.
    The mission of the police has been perverted over and over from the ideal of the sheriff who was there to keep the peace.

    The Drug War won’t stop. Probably a full third of the employed police do little but harass people with a joint. Kids in school are easy marks.

    It has all been going on for a long time. I just read Jack Black’s “You Can’t Win” and it is an important read where he credits his arrest in a raid on a brothel when about 12 as the beginning of his life of crime. Glorification of Jesse James in the press and other factors are further credited.

    He had been collecting the money for the milk man when arrested.

    (“You Can’t Win” & “The Wild Party” had large influence on William Burroughs early in his life, along with Scientology later. Refer to Beatdom for some history of the sorts of people, the Beats, the schools are desperate to eliminate from society.)

  11. animalogic

    “The reality is that kids need to be loved and given goals and missions. The mission is to educate and that is something that requires the student to want to learn.
    The mission of the police has been perverted over and over from the ideal of the sheriff who was there to keep the peace ”

    Great comment.
    That said, please forgive me because I’m going to have a rant.
    Has everyone become clinically insane ?
    A rational discussion over the existence and means of interrogating CHILDREN ?
    How can it be possible for ANYONE, police, school, anyone, to question a child in the absence of a guardian, parent or lawyer ?
    In what bizarre parallel universe can it become necessary to aggressively question (“interrogate”) a child on matters purely internal to a school ?
    What kind of educator can see their role as including systematic, “professional” interrogation ?
    Symptoms, such as the above, are suggestive of a moral and cultural rot in the US–in the West — which is, as yet, barely understood, let alone articulated….
    There endeth the rant. Apologies.

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