Sniffing out drugs in Harford schools [Editorial]

Conducting a review of the policy under which drug-sniffing dogs are brought into public middle and high schools in Harford County, as is currently being done, is a worthwhile exercise in responsibility, both for school officials and the students and parents affected by it.

The school system is soliciting public comment on the drug dog policy. Parents and anyone else interested are encouraged to comment on the policy through the school system's web site, a section at the bottom of the web page has a link to a comment area under the heading "use of Drug Detecting Dogs in Secondary Schools."

Since 1998, the Harford County Board of Education has allowed police drug dog searches of middle and high schools to be conducted without notice to the student body. During this period, the school board has, on occasion, amended and reaffirmed the 15-point, two-page policy.

Such reviews by the board of education are especially important because drug dog scans of student lockers are an out-of-the-ordinary measure, one that would be difficult to justify in an adult setting.

The U.S. Constitution has a Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. The school system's lawyer, however, prompted by concerns raised by Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo, has told the board searches by the dogs are generally not regarded as unreasonable, unless the dog is instructed to sniff individuals.

While it may be easy to argue that the practice of using drug-sniffing dogs to scan lockers goes right up to the constitutional edge, such searches can be justified because the rights and responsibilities imparted under the law to children are different from those imparted to adults. Moreover, the school system has a rather high level of responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for children. Striving to make schools drug free is part of that responsibility.

It is unusual for any of these drug dog scans to turn up contraband in students lockers. Students are well aware the scans could be conducted at any time. Even if they indulge in illicit intoxicants, we suspect the majority are reluctant to bring the substances to school and get caught with them.

The dogs do give false alerts fairly regularly. It may be that they're smelling residue that's otherwise undetectable. It may be they're just making mistakes. Either way, the result is lockers end up being searched. As part of the policy in effect, the student assigned to the locker being searched is pulled out of class to witness the search.

Given that most searches have turned up nothing – and given the reality that school lockers are public, not private, property – the resulting embarrassment of being pulled out of class for a locker search could be avoided, as board member Alison Krchnavy pointed out, by video-taping the searches.

That's a reasonable request, and one the school system's chief of security says could be accommodated.

It is possible other suggestions offered by parents, students and the general public could be just as reasonable and potentially useful, highlighting the importance of the regular reviews of the policy conducted by the school board.

One aspect of the policy under review that is cause for concern, however, is that the on-line version of the policy up for consideration changes the authority over details from the board of education to the superintendent of schools.

The 15-point policy, which reasonably addresses many details of what could become an intrusive practice, would be changed to a few sentences giving authority over the details to the superintendent.

The school board would do well to rethink this aspect of the policy, as the details are rather vital, and turning them over from a board answerable to the public to a hired administrator isn't a particularly solid course of action.

Regardless of whether the policy on drug dog searches is the school board's or the superintendent's, the board should continue to review it regularly.

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