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More Schools Using Dogs to Sniff Out Drugs


March-April 1998

A growing number of school officials across the nation are allowing drug-sniffing dogs into schools or are considering the idea as a strategy to combat student drug use (Patricia Davis and Debbi Wilgoren, "More Schools Using Dogs to Sniff Out Drugs," Washington Post, March 27, 1998, p. B1).

In such searches, trained dogs check lockers, restrooms and other common areas of school buildings. Supporters of the sweeps say that although they rarely turn up illegal substances, they are a powerful deterrent to drug use and may encourage other students to report suspicious activity.

"I see it as [sending] all kinds of positive messages," said Richard Doyle, the hearing officer who oversees drug cases for the Fairfax County, Virginia school system. "It says to students, `I'm going to use all means to keep you safe.' "

But school principals are divided on the tactic. Some principals fear that the seizure of drugs could reflect badly on them or their schools. Other principals object because they find the checks intrusive, although the use of dogs to search school property has been upheld by the courts.

"We don't like it because it's snooping," said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Capital Area office. "It's a form of government intrusion in a place where we think people have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Washington, D.C. schools security director Patrick V. Fiel said he and schools Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr. successfully lobbied Interim Police Chief Sonya T. Proctor to make the drug-sniffing canine teams available for area schools. Fiel said he expects some apprehension from parents and community leaders who might envision large German shepherds intimidating students. However, he said, the dogs are not used directly on students.

Most police departments avoid using their dogs to search people because the animals are trained to start scratching when they detect drugs, and because such searches would be more vulnerable to legal challenges. School and police officials acknowledge that many students keep their drugs on their person, in creative places such as under the tongues of tennis shoes, inside underwear, and between jacket linings.

School systems across the country are relying on private companies to provide the dog-sniffing service. One of the largest such firms, Interquest Group Inc., has contracted with more than 350 school districts in Texas, Michigan and California. Michael P. Ferdinand, vice president of Interquest, said the dog teams have found drugs as many as 2,000 times in a year. However, there has been a "significant reduction" over time in the amount of drugs seized in schools that used the dogs regularly, he said.

"We're going to see the use of drug dogs increasing dramatically over the next few years," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California. "If we're going to require kids to attend school, then we ought to be required to provide safe schools."

Interquest Group Inc., - 21900 Tomball Pkwy., Houston, TX 77070, Tel: (800) 481-7768, Fax: (281) 320-1251.

Ronald Stephens - National School Safety Center, 4165 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Suite 290, West Lake Village, CA 91362, Tel: (805) 373-9277, Fax: (805) 373-9977.

Arthur Spitzer - ACLU, 1400 20th Street, NW, Suite 119, Washington, DC 20036, Tel: (202) 457-0800.