Should drug-sniffing dogs be routinely used in Monroe schools for random searches?
That is a question the Monroe Community Coalition, an organization devoted to reducing substance abuse in youth, posed to the Monroe School Board at the regular Monday meeting March 10.
The coalition, made of representatives from schools, churches, service agencies and the Monroe police, noted the results of a Washington Department of Health “Healthy Youth Survey” of Monroe teens that found a higher level of depression in Monroe than in other parts of the county.
Depression is a risk factor in drug use.
Monroe kids surveyed also indicated higher-than-average levels of belief that their parents were tolerant of drug use and a lower-than-average belief that local police enforce drug laws.
Also, 56 percent of 10th graders said they intend to use drugs, up from 46 percent in 2010.
Further alarming statistics from other sources show that in recent years, the number of teens entering treatment programs who report that their primary drug of choice is alcohol has dropped from a high of about 29 percent in 2007 to about seven percent in 2013. And kids whose drug of choice was heroin rose from zero percent in 2007 to above eight percent last year.
“We need to make a clear, bold statement that drugs will not be tolerated to turn that tide,” said Monroe School Board member Nancy Truitt Pierce in a Facebook comment. “Having drug sniffing dogs come on campus a couple or three times per year as a deterrent has been effective in other schools so they recommended this as one tool to use to curb drug use in our schools.”
How searches are conducted
The Monroe Police Department is volunteering to conduct parking lot searches two or three times a year, using non-aggressive, drug-detecting Labradors. The dogs are trained to smell heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy.
Typically, students are told weeks in advance that a drug search using dogs will take place at some point in the near future. When the search is taking place, the school is placed on lockdown so kids can’t leave class while the officers and dogs are in the parking lot.
If a dog identified a car as smelling of drugs, the police would tell school personnel. School administrators would then decide if they think there’s a good reason to investigate further.
The staff would first talk to the student associated with the car. If there were drugs in the car, the penalty would depend on the seriousness of the offense. Small amounts might lead to an attempt at intervention and counseling. Larger amounts might lead to suspension or more.
Police are not necessarily told the identity of the student associated with the drug-suspected property, nor what and how much drugs were found.
Controversy and legal rulings
The long-contested question of whether drug-sniffing dogs in schools are a violation of the constitutional amendment against search without probable cause may have been settled last year.
The Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled that a student’s rights had not been violated when one child’s parents sued a Missouri school after their child’s belongings were subjected to a search in which all the children were told to leave their belongings in a room, whereupon drug-sniffing dogs were led through the room.
The court ruled that that the search was a reasonable procedure to maintain safety and security.
And the Monroe Police Department, in an email to the school board, emphasized that searches are only one piece of a larger effort to combat substance abuse.
But it is considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment to use a dog to sniff a person.
And if a dog indicates that a vehicle smells of drugs, it does not constitute probable cause for a police search. However, school officials may search the car, as school officials have more authority than police to search on school property.
The use of dogs is controversial, and not just in schools.
In 2011, the Chicago Tribune studied data from dog-assisted traffic stops and found that dogs were strongly biased by the biases of their handlers. While a positive alert from a dog resulted in the discovery of drugs 47 percent of the time overall, positive alerts only resulted in the discovery of drugs eight percent of the time when the subject was Hispanic. Since dogs have no racial bias, the paper concluded that the dogs were reflecting the biases of the handlers.
And in Nevada in 2012, police officers alleged that some dogs were intentionally trained to give false positive alerts.
One piece of the puzzle
Even if the school does decide to use dogs, they aren’t meant to solve the entire problem of youth substance abuse, said both police and school board members.
“I want to stress the use of narcotic detection K-9s on school campuses are only part of a greater picture when combating substance abuse. Education, prevention, intervention, therapy, legal consequences with illicit use of controlled substances, and other components all comprise to fight this battle,” wrote Officer Justin Springer.
And dogs could help identify kids who need intervention, said school board member Nancy Truitt Pierce.
“This still seems like a powerful and visible way to send a message to our kids that we do plan to take action if anyone brings drugs on campus,” Pierce commented in a spirited Facebook debate on the topic. “It won’t be the only thing we need to do but I think it could be a help in both deterring drug abuse and finding and helping kids who have started down that road. The sooner we catch them, the better chance we have of helping them before it’s too late. I don’t want to lose even one!”
The Monroe Community Coalition and the school board plan to continue exploring the possibility before coming to a final decision.