Harford school board approves changes for drug-detecting dog policy

If a drug-sniffing dog finds potential contraband in a student's locker, rather than being called to the locker, the student will be called to the office to avoid embarrassing him or her.

It is the most significant change the Harford County Board of Education approved at Monday's school board meeting to the school system's policy and procedures governing searches using drug-sniffing dogs are done in school buildings or properties.

In the 8-1 vote, student representative Hannah Jones voted for the changes; board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo cast the lone dissenting vote, and board member Joseph Hau was absent.

The procedures of how the searches are carried out have been removed from the board's policy statement, which now states that the board "authorizes the use of drug detecting dogs," and it gives the school superintendent the authority to "establish procedures to regulate the implementation of this policy."

"The procedure is the edict from the board telling the superintendent what to do, and the superintendent makes the procedures accordingly," Robert Benedetto, head of safety and security for Harford County Public Schools, explained.

School officials stated in supporting documents that the drug detecting dog policy should "be abbreviated so that it is succinct and clear," and the procedures listed in a separate document.

Benedetto stressed to board members the procedures for the searches have not changed, other than having the student come to the office rather than the locker when a dog makes an alert.

"This eliminates embarrassment, and it's more efficient to operate the system," he said.

The school is locked down as the dog, handled by a county sheriff's deputy or municipal police officer, scans the building and/or parking lot. Benedetto said he, a school administrator and police officer are witnesses to the search if a dog alerts at a locker or vehicle.

Police dogs were used to scan more than 5,500 lockers and 108 vehicles at 17 Harford County middle and high schools during the 2013-2014 school year; the dogs alerted 14 times, but no illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco products or weapons were found, according to a report posted on the school system website.

The unannounced scans take place during the school year between October and May.

Board member Robert Frisch reiterated a concern brought up by fellow board member Alysson Krchnavy when Benedetto and the school system's lawyer, Patrick Spicer, brought the policy before the board in late May about having the search recorded on video.

"There's nothing prohibiting us from doing that, but we do have witnesses," Benedetto said Monday. "It's never been done to this point; we've always had a police officer [or] a school resource officer, myself and at least one administrator there to validate the locker search in accordance with our policies and procedures."

When asked by Frisch, Benedetto acknowledged school officials had decided internally that video recordings were not needed.

"That's correct, at this point," Benedetto said.

Frisch said he brought up the suggestion of video recordings again "because of the concerns, at many levels, of public interaction with law enforcement or authority."

"If we have the technology, and it's available, that serves as a way to, without question, validate what was done, what wasn't done, what was found and what wasn't found," Frisch continued.

Board member Arthur Kaff asked if a student's parents are informed after a search and if the dog is allowed to sniff a student or school staff member.

Benedetto said parents of a student whose locker is searched are informed, especially since the student must bring all of his or her belongings home while the locker is cleaned after the search.

He also confirmed the dog is not allowed to sniff students and staff, a restriction that has been part of the procedures since they were established in 1998.

"If they alert on a locker, then the locker is searched, but the student is never sniffed," Benedetto explained.

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