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What Teens Need to Know if They are Questioned by the Police

A graphic shows a stylized police officer standing in front of a police car with its door open.

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Preparing children and teens ahead of time can prevent legal problems.

Tips for parents to prepare their teens with disabilities

These tips from the PACER Center provide a brief summary of information for parents of children or teens with disabilities at risk of arrest by police at school or in the community.

What can your child or teen say to the police?

Your child may:

  • Tell the police officer their name, address and age
  • Ask police to call a parent, guardian, or another person identified in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and say the child or teen needs to speak to an attorney
  • Say they cannot answer questions unless an adult who knows them is present. The adult may include a parent, foster parent, legal guardian or teacher whose involvement you have approved.
  • Ask if they are under arrest or free to leave

These rules apply whether the police want to talk with your child or teen in the community or at school. Anything said at school to a school administrator, police liaison officer, or a police officer can be used against your child in court.

How can you prepare your child or teen for questioning by police at school or in the community?

Teach your child or teen to ask for an attorney and a parent.

Prepare a script about what to do if an officer stops or wants to speak with your child or teen in the community or at school. Practice appropriate responses. Make sure your child or teen understands what to say to police. Stress that they should be polite to the police.

Stress that your child or teen cannot challenge an officer in any way.

Teach your child or teen that they should not:

  • run away from the police officer
  • make up a story – even if they think it will help
  • argue with a police officer, even if the officer says something that sounds unfair

If the police tell your child or teen they just want to talk about what happened and then they can go home, tell your child or teen to say that they cannot answer questions unless an adult they know and an attorney are present.

If the police tell your child or teen that others have said they committed the crime, tell your child or teen to say that a parent and attorney must be present before they will speak or sign a statement.

What should you do if your child is detained or arrested?

  • Go to the police station as soon as you learn your child is being questioned or detained.
  • Obtain as much information as you can about the charges.
  • Tell the officers that you wish to be present during questioning and that questioning should stop until an attorney is there.
  • Provide information about your child’s disability to the police, the attorney, or public defender. Include the IEP and most recent evaluation.
  • Explain how the disability affects your child’s behavior, understanding of the alleged offense, and ability to answer questions appropriately.

Use the IEP

If your child or teen has an IEP and you think they could be questioned or arrested at school:

  • Meet with your IEP team and plan what to do if the situation arises.
  • Develop behavioral and crisis plans. Identify an individual who will stay with your teen if a police liaison officer or police officer questions them.
  • The individual who would stay with your teen can be a parent, a member of the IEP team, or any other mutually acceptable person who understands your teen’s disability and can advocate for them.
  • Make sure the information is written into your teen’s IEP.

Meet with police

If you are concerned that your child or teen’s disability puts them at higher risk for police involvement, meet with the police officers in your neighborhood.

  • Tell police about the disability and why your child or teen may be at risk for police involvement (language or cognitive issues, anxiety, etc.).
  • Offer strategies that officers can use effectively with your child or teen if a problem occurs.
  • If your child or teen is willing, introduce them to the officers at the local police station. Give the officers an opportunity to become acquainted with the child or teen that you know and understand.

Remember

The rights of children and teens are similar to those of adults if the police stop them or they are questioned by anyone regarding a criminal or formal complaint.

Any information your child or teen shares can be used against them in court. In many states, a parent does not have to be present when a child or teen is questioned. Find out what the laws are in your state about police contacting parents when their child is brought in for questioning.

The most important thing to remember is that your child or teen should not sign anything or answer questions without someone like a parent, guardian or attorney present.

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This resource created by The PACER Center