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Harford school board weighs 'tweaks' to drug dog scan policy

Harford County Public Schools officials are seeking public input on policy changes regarding how scans using drug-sniffing dogs are conducted in middle and high schools.

School administrators coordinate the scans of students' lockers and vehicles with law enforcement agencies such as the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

Members of the public can see the policy on the school system website, and provide comments via email. A link to the policy can be found at the bottom of the school system home page.

The proposed policy must still be approved by the Board of Education.

The drug dog scans are carried out during the school year between October and May, depending on when the dogs are available, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for HCPS, explained in a recent e-mail.

Scans of more than 5,500 lockers and 108 vehicles at 17 middle and high schools countywide during the 2013-2014 school year revealed no finds of illegal drugs, tobacco products, alcohol or knives, according to a report posted on the school system website.

The dogs alerted 14 times, meaning they indicated to their handlers that they had found an item that could be contraband.

Robert Benedetto, head of safety and security for the school system, recently told members of the Board of Education that officials work to visit each secondary school at least once a year.

He said security staffers work with school administrators to ensure the scans do not conflict with testing.

"Anything other than that is unannounced, and they show up," Benedetto explained.

Proposed changes to the policy, which was adopted during the 1990s, include giving the school superintendent the authority to "establish procedures" to implement the board-authorized policy to allow drug dog scans to help ensure a "drug-free academic environment for all students," according to a copy of the revised policy posted online.

Benedetto explained two "tweaks" to existing procedures during a May 27 school board meeting, when the changes were presented.

He said any school building when a drug scan is taking place would be placed into lockdown, in order to be in keeping with state education policies.

Students and staff would be barred from school hallways while the drug-sniffing dog is making its scan.

"The second part would be to eliminate embarrassment to students and expedite the drug dog scans," Benedetto explained.

He said that, under current policy, if a dog "alerts" on a locker and drugs are found, the student is escorted to the locker while it is searched.

Benedetto explained that "it doesn't take a rocket scientist" among the student's classmates to determine what has happened.

Under the proposed change, the principal, with another school administrator as a witness, will search a locker the dog has made an alert on. If anything is found, the student is called to the school office.

Board member Alysson Krchnavy suggested using a video camera to document the search.

Benedetto said security staff are "not equipped at this time" to record the searches. Krchnavy asked if a smartphone or video camera at the school could be used.

"We could do that," Benedetto said. "If that's the wishes of the superintendent and the board we'll make that happen."

Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo asked if police officers can use dogs to conduct random searches of other public places for drugs.

"Are we conditioning our children to accept conditions that they wouldn't otherwise be expected to accept?" Grambo asked.

Benedetto said the standard for the drug scan of the school building and lot is "reasonable suspicion," rather than the "probable cause" standard needed for a search of a locker.

He said students are warned about such scans in their handbooks.

Patrick Spicer, general counsel to the school system, who presented the policy with Benedetto, said schools, as government entities, are covered under protections against "unreasonable" searches and seizures ensured in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

He noted a scan by a drug dog "is not considered a search by the courts."

"Unless it came up to a person, courts have said a drug dog sniffing is basically an enhancement of the olfactory powers of the administration," Spicer explained.

Lader said the results of the drug dog scans are posted online. The report for the 2013-14 school year can be found in the Safety and Security section of the HCPS website.

To get there, visit the HCPS home page, put your cursor over the tab for "About Us" on the left-hand side of the page and click "Organizational Charts;" then click the tab for "Administrative Departments," then the link for "Safety and Security."

The report for dog scans can then be opened.

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