Will police dog sniff for drugs at school?

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Popular pet: Donald Jones, with the Guilderland Police, and his German shepherd, Rocky, were a hit in August at Guilderland’s Night Out in Tawasentha Park. The superintendent of Guilderland schools, Marie Wiles, hopes to use the pair for sweeps of lockers to check for illegal substances. They may be stationed in the high school’s parking lot at dismissal “so folks get to understand this is a resource, that it’s not to scare anyone,” Wiles said.

GUILDERLAND — A German shepherd, trained to detect drugs and handled by a Guilderland police officer, may soon become part of the high school scene at Guilderland.

School leaders and board members have recently met with Guilderland police to work out preventative safety measures, said Superintendent Marie Wiles, and a Nov. 6 program is planned to air the plans publicly at a televised school board meeting.

The police dog named Rocky and his handler, Donald Jones, may be stationed in the school’s parking lot at dismissal “so folks get to understand this is a resource, that it’s not to scare anyone,” Wiles said.

Another measure discussed at the recent meeting, Wiles said, was to have “the Guilderland Police Department tap into our camera system…so they can see what we see in real time.”

The district has an extensive surveillance system in all seven of its school buildings and a proposed capital project would expand that system, Wiles said.

“It’s all about prevention,” she went on. “That’s the message we want to get out to the community…We’re not doing this to catch students.”

Two years ago, in December 2011, the school board was deeply divided about the superintendent’s request that police dogs be allowed to sniff high-school lockers and storage areas for illegal substances. Wiles said then that the impetus came from Thomas Lutsic, who was just starting as the high school principal.

“Every school I’ve been in has done it,” Lutsic told The Enterprise at the time. “It communicates to the community that the school is conscious of keeping kids safe.”

The two board members who objected most strenuously two years ago, Richard Weisz and Denise Eisele, have retired from the school board.

Weisz, a lawyer, said there had been many years without searches and argued that police may believe they have “an open-and-shut case” if they find drugs in a student’s locker when, in fact, the drugs could have been placed there by someone else.

“They’ll be escorted out of the school in handcuffs,” said Eisele, a nurse. “It’s a punitive situation. They’re not going to get … help.”

“This stuff does not belong in our schools,” said Barbara Fraterrigo two years ago of drugs; she favored the canine patrols and is now the board’s president. “It’s not a healthy environment,” she said, noting then, “The new principal wants to be proactive and let kids know we really want them to be safe.”

Wiles is confident the school board now will support a police dog trained to detect drugs in the school. Last week, she said that seven of nine school board members, a quorum, attended a Sept. 20 meeting with police, administrators from the middle and high schools, and a parent, not as part of a regular board meeting, to discuss canine searches.

The board members, Wiles said, had an “a-ha moment” when they realized the purpose of the search would not be to “catch kids” but rather “to be preventative,” to keep students from drugs.

“The canine would only search lockers, not people,” said Wiles. “Administrators, not police, would go into lockers.”

If drugs were found in a locker, Wiles said, “The process would be identical to what we do now…No student would be taken out in handcuffs or traumatized.”

The current process, she said, involves asking the student to empty his or her pockets and backpack. If an illegal substance is found, she said of school personnel, “We can’t have it in our possession.” She also said, “If it’s selling [drugs], it’s more serious, and law enforcement is definitely involved.”

Asked how often in the three years she has been Guilderland’s superintendent drugs have been found at the school, Wiles said that it was “very rare.” Pressed further on the number, she said, “A handful last year.”

The drugs, she said, are typically marijuana or prescription drugs and are discovered, predominantly at the high school, through “tips from students.”

A review of the arrest records from the Guilderland Police over the last year, which The Enterprise prints weekly, showed no drug arrests at the high school.

Over the last decade, The Enterprise has covered only sporadic drug arrests at the high school. In 2007, for example, a 17-year-old was arrested at the high school for unlawful possession of marijuana after two large Baggies of marijuana were found hidden in a sock in his book bag while at school, the arrest report said.

In 2005, the guardian of a 16-year-old called the police station and said he might have taken prescription pills from the house; he was called to the principal’s office where he was asked to empty his pockets and the school resource officer saw a pot pipe tucked in his shoe. The pipe contained marijuana so he was arrested for unlawful possession.

The 16-year-old said he had taken two prescription pills that morning, the arrest report said, and that he had given at least 20 other pills to his friends, whose names he would not disclose.

The law

While public-school students have protection under the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” schools are allowed, by law, to maintain safe learning environments.

A 1985 Supreme Court case helped define how far the constitutional guarantee went when pitted against a school’s stance that administrators act in place of a parent, in loco parentis, while students are at school.

A 14-year-old New Jersey high school student and her girlfriend were seen by a teacher smoking in the restroom, which was against school rules. The girl, labeled in court papers as T.L.O., denied smoking. The assistant principal opened her purse and found a pack of cigarettes and also evidence of marijuana possession, use, and sale. T.L.O. sought to have the evidence excluded in criminal court on the grounds that the search violated her rights under the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, it held that a warrant was not needed for the assistant principal to search T.L.O. and that the reduced standard of “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause” governs school searches; a warrant is not needed.

The Supreme Court established a two-pronged test of reasonableness: First, the search must be justified at its inception, meaning there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the search will reveal evidence that the student has violated the law or school rules, and, second, as conducted, the search must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances, meaning that the measures used to conduct the search are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and that the search is not excessively intrusive in light of the student’s age and gender and the nature of the offense.

Since the 1985 landmark decision, a number of cases have debated what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.” In 1987, in Burnham v. West, for example, it was found that the smell of marijuana in a school hallway does not provide reasonable suspicion to search all students’ purses, pockets, and book bags, while, in 1995, in State of New Hampshire v. Drake, it was found an anonymous phone call advising an administrator that a student would be bringing drugs to school, coupled with that student’s reputation as a drug dealer, created reasonable suspicion to allow a search of the student’s pockets and book bag.

While school officials need only reasonable suspicion, law-enforcement officials typically must have probable cause to search students. If a student voluntarily consents to a search, either a school official or a law-enforcement official may conduct the search without either reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

School officials are allowed to conduct random or blanket searches — for example, using metal detectors — as a preventive measure.

Drug-sniffing dogs in schools are the most controversial of these random searches but most courts have ruled that the practice is not a search if the dogs don’t sniff students or their belongings but, rather, sniff the air around their property.

In a 1999 federal court case, B.C. v. Plumas Unified School District, the court ruled a dog sniffing a student requires individualized, reasonable suspicion, not justified by the prevention of drug abuse.

Immunity generally protects a school administrator acting in good faith in areas where the law isn’t clear, particularly if the school has a sound policy articulating the need for searches to establish a safe learning environment.

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