Go undercover for confessions

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Paul Blum continues his tricks of the trade for school managers

To be effective as a senior manager, you need to learn how to be a detective and how to break suspects, using interrogation. Only the former heads of year among you will be well versed in conducting interviews that lead to confessions.

The kinds of pupil problems that lead to undercover investigations are:

* Pupil fight: who, if anyone, was to blame? Sometimes you need to call for eye-witnesses to see who did what to whom.

* An act of vandalism: you will need to question witnesses in the vicinity or replay security camera footage if your school has it.

* There has been an incident on a bus or a train outside school and you are trying to identify the group of your pupils involved.

In all these situations you need to be good at getting witness statements.

A key strategy for the success of detective work is to pick on the weakest and easiest link in the chain. So, if you are investigating a fight, question the least hard-bitten fighter first.

Most fights have a rookie and a regular professional circuit fighter involved - and the usual scenario is that the regular has picked on the rookie. It usually pays to follow this initial interview up by asking a couple of eyewitnesses what happened. There is never a shortage of them at a fight.

But the most reliable ones are not the people that the fighters can remember gathering around them, as they are often the friends or enemies of one or other of the combatants. They will lie to protect their friend or incriminate the enemy.

But these partisan hangers-on can tell you the names of ordinary pupils just watching, who can give the most useful evidence on how the fight started.

For difficult investigations, which are going to take a lot of interviews and witness statements, it is useful to team up with a buddy detective - another member of the leadership team. One of you takes the soft cop role and the other is the hard cop.

As before, you go for the weakest link in the chain. The hard cop weighs in with a series of guesses about what the interviewee knows.

After the hard cop has bluffed and implied that other people have already confessed to what they have done or what they saw, the hard cop threatens dire retribution on holding back on the truth.

The argument usually used is that silence will be taken as an assumption of full, hands-on involvement in the crime. This can be enough to get a total submission, but if not, the hard cop leaves and soft cop enters.

The soft cop shows a bit of empathy and commiseration for the sweating suspect before outlining to them, in a reasonable way, why it might be better to give in. The hard cop has concentrated on the moral high ground of the offence that the person has been accused of.

The soft cop now gently but systematically goes over the details of the alibi again, looking for small inconsistencies.

All the protagonists are interviewed at different times and in different rooms, so they cannot compare their stories. This leaves them lots of time to sit in silence and worry.

Meanwhile, the two buddy detectives regularly swap information and discuss tactics.

As in the case of the kind of assault, robbery or intimidations that the police have to deal with, one of the biggest obstacles to senior management investigations making headway is that witnesses are scared to give information, fearing reprisal in or out of school.

One regular trick the detectives can use is to say they have evidence recorded on film. Knowledgeable school villains are aware of where most of the school cameras are and will be at pains to wear hoods or scarves to hide their identity when in the vicinity.

But they are never quite sure where all the cameras are, or if indeed there are some secret, concealed ones. When threatened with evidence from an unexpected source, they will often grass up a mate or admit to something themselves.

Successful inquiry

* Accept that unravelling an issue in which pupils are trying to conceal the truth from the school takes time.

* The most effective investigations take place close to the event and not several days later. The bigger the time gap, the more the perpetrators have the chance to cover their tracks and prepare a collaborated story.

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