Vol. 20-003, February 12, 2020
(OAH Case No. 2018120438 (2019).)​

The Gist

When interviewing student witnesses, school administrators should take steps to avoid confirmation bias and cross-contamination of testimony. Improper interview techniques may undermine a school district’s investigation.

The Details

A teacher faced dismissal charges related to misconduct arising from his interactions with students while teaching high school and second grade. The school district alleged that when teaching second grade, the teacher yelled at students, forced students into kneeling positions to serve “time-out,” and grabbed students by their necks.

After one second grade student accused the teacher of misconduct, the school principal interviewed three additional second grade students. The students were English Language Learners and struggled academically. The principal asked each student witness to write a statement describing the teacher’s misconduct after their interview. Because some of the student witnesses could not write legible statements, the principal and another administrator transcribed the statements.

At hearing, the school district presented no evidence that the administrators admonished student witnesses not to discuss the investigation or their interviews following the meeting with the principal. Further, the principal did not take notes during the student interviews.

At hearing, the principal testified that after two student interviews, she concluded that something inappropriate occurred in the teacher’s classroom.

The teacher’s expert witness questioned the principal’s interview practices and described best practices for interviewing minor students. The expert explained that cross-contamination of witnesses and age are the two key issues when interviewing children. The expert testified that the younger the child, the more susceptible they are to suggestibility. The expert also testified that children with learning differences (including students who are English Language Learners and those who struggle academically) are more susceptible to suggestibility.

The expert opined that the focus of the questions became narrower throughout the investigation and were designed to elicit certain information consistent with the information derived from previous interviews.

The CPC gave significant weight to the expert testimony and determined that it could not conclude that misconduct occurred when the teacher served in second grade. Ultimately, the CPC determined that the school district did not satisfy its burden to terminate the teacher given the principal’s interview techniques and the students’ conversations amongst themselves regarding the investigation.

The teacher also faced a number of charges related to inappropriate conduct with high school students. The district presented evidence that the teacher stared at female students’ breasts and buttocks, invaded their personal space, and made inappropriate comments about female students’ appearances. The district also presented evidence that the teacher maintained motorcycle magazines in his classroom that contained explicit material. However, the CPC found that the district failed to provide sufficient evidence to sustain these charges.

Consequently, the CPC dismissed the charges against the teacher.

Practical Pointers

At the outset of an investigative interview, school district personnel should take steps to build rapport with the student witness. Further, the interviewer should set ground rules that establish there is no “right” or “wrong” answer and the student witness should not provide the answer he/she believes the interviewer wants to hear.

When interviewing students, interviewers should explain that the student must be honest during the interview. Interviewers should also establish that young students understand the difference between the truth and a lie.

Interviewers should also take steps to eliminate confirmation bias and cross-contamination issues when conducting student interviews. The younger the student, the more susceptible the student is to suggestibility. To the greatest extent possible, interviewers should ask open-ended questions that allow students to provide a narrative, rather than a “yes” or “no” response. Interviewers should also direct students not to discuss the interviews with their peers.

Finally, interviewers should take detailed notes and save copies of interview questions and the students’ responses. Following best practices will help maintain the integrity of the investigation and prevent student statements from being called into question in future discipline proceedings. ​

Dismissal Overturned. [Appeal Pending] ​​

Please note, nothing contained in the CPC Blog is intended to be legal advice. Please feel free to contact any of our offices for additional information and/or consult legal counsel regarding any particular matters.