State law could address mental health during student interrogations

A suburban state representative has proposed a law that she and her youth advisory group believe would help protect the mental stability of students during interrogations about behavior by requiring a parent or mental health professional to be there.

The proposal originated from the January 2017 death of 16-year-old Corey Walgren, a Naperville North High School student who took his life after being questioned by school officials and police about an allegation of wrongdoing.

But the attorney for Corey's parents, Douglas and Maureen Walgren of Naperville, said the bill as written could do the opposite of protecting student mental health because of the word "or," which could allow a mental health professional instead of a parent to be present during questioning, potentially leading to very different advice.

"I am not impressed with it at all," attorney Terry Ekl said about House Bill 2627, which was introduced Feb. 14 and referred to the House's rules committee. "It's attempting to interfere with the parent-child relationship."

84th District state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said she and members of her Youth Citizen Advisory Council drafted the bill because Corey's death "really rattled" Naperville-area students.

"They didn't think it was right that he was all alone," Kifowit said. "We never want to have that happen again."

Kifowit, of Aurora, said the proposal she and the students created would require "a parent or mental health professional to be present for interviews in which an authority figure uses interrogation tactics against a student."

"We need to look out for the total well-being of the student," she said.

Waubonsie Valley High School student Jake Kelly, 17, of Aurora, feels the same way. He said he was familiar with Corey and had friends who knew him through hockey.

"We realized that if there's nobody there to really watch out for the kid, then that's very easy for something bad to happen," Jake said. "For these situations where a kid is going to be getting in big trouble and the law could be involved, there needs to be somebody there to mediate."

Ekl said that somebody should be a parent or legal guardian.

"The police and the school personnel are already required to notify the parents prior to any interrogation of a student by the police or where the police are involved," Ekl said. "That is something that I believe Naperville North and perhaps other school districts routinely violate."

Ekl said the proposed law's requirement of "the presence of the student's parent or guardian, a school social worker or a licensed mental health professional" weakens the previous mandate.

"You can see the difference in focus between a sch ool employee and a parent in terms of the best interests of the child," Ekl said.

Corey's parents have sued two Naperville North deans, the school resource officer, Naperville Unit District 203 and the city of Naperville, alleging they violated Corey's rights and their questioning led to his death. A judge last month dismissed the lawsuit, but Ekl said he is in the process of appealing.

Naperville Unit District 203, in a written statement, said officials "remain confident in our staff, who serve with our students' best interest at heart." Naperville City Attorney Mike DiSanto, in a written statement, said "the city continues to support the officer involved" and is confident the dismissal will be affirmed.

If Kifowit's legislative proposal becomes law, Ekl said it would not be on "solid footing" and could succumb to a legal challenge.

Kifowit said the law could help ensure there is someone to watch for students' emotional well-being during questioning about "the most serious of situations." Students could need mental support in more situations than adults realize, she said.

"It is extreme," she said about the case of Corey's death. "But then it makes you extrapolate and think about what we don't know, like what kids are harboring depression from an interaction, or what other situations are causing great distress."

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