In a victory for Ohio schools, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Ohio Supreme Court in Ohio v. Clark, finding that the admission of a teacher’s testimony regarding a pre-school student’s answers to her inquiries about suspicious injuries is not a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. OSBA’s Legal Assistance Fund joined the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National School Boards Association, and submitted an amicus brief arguing that the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision needed to be overturned.
Ramona Whitley, a pre-school teacher in Cuyahoga County, asked a 3-year old student about suspicious marks on his face. The pre-schooler initially said nothing was wrong, but eventually told Whitley he fell. When the lead teacher, Debra Jones, asked the student “who did this?”, the child responded “Dee Dee.” Jones asked the child if Dee was “big or little” and the child responded that “Dee is big.” Jones took the child to her supervisor, who found more injuries when he lifted the child’s shirt. Pursuant to Ohio’s mandatory reporter law, Whitley reported suspected child abuse to the appropriate authorities.
The subsequent investigation resulted in criminal charges against the boyfriend of the child’s mother, Darius “Dee” Clark, for abuse of the pre-schooler and his 18-month old sister. A grand jury indicted Clark on five counts of assault, two counts of endangering children, and two counts of domestic violence. The teacher’s testimony about the pre-schooler’s statements was introduced as evidence at court as evidence of Clark’s guilt. The pre-schooler was not brought as a witness in the case because the trial court concluded he was not competent to testify as a witness under Ohio law. Clark was found guilty on all but one count, and sentenced to 28 years’ imprisonment.
Clark appealed the decision, arguing that admitting the pre-schooler’s statements through the testimony of his teacher was a violation of the Confrontation Clause. Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Court’s decision, finding that admission of the pre-schooler’s statements was a violation of the Confrontation Clause because the teacher’s questions were “not to deal with an existing emergency but rather to gather evidence potentially relevant to a subsequent criminal investigation.” The Ohio Supreme Court also held teachers were acting as agents of the state under the mandatory reporting law.
The State of Ohio appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. After reviewing a series of cases dealing with the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the pre-schooler’s statements had occurred in the context of an ongoing emergency involving suspected child abuse. The teachers’ immediate concern in questioning the pre-schooler had been to protect a child who needed help by identifying the threat to the child. “Statements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause,” Justice Alito wrote. Further, “[i]t is common sense that the relationship between a student as his teacher is very different from that between a citizen and the police.”
You can read the full decision here.