Reasonable Suspicion? 

Weighing the rights of students in Hamilton’s war on drugs

The War on Drugs, which is being reconsidered by people and groups as diverse as the governor of New Mexico, the Montana Legislature, The New York Times, writer Gore Vidal and the presidents of Mexico and the United States, is still being fought in earnest, but lately the battle is being waged on much smaller stages.

Last week, Hamilton High School became one of 87 schools in Montana and Wyoming to contract with Interquest Detection Canines, an Idaho company that trains so-called “detection dogs” to sniff out such contraband as drugs, alcohol and gunpowder from student cars, lockers, coats, desks, purses and book bags.

To the teachers and students who find their school day increasingly interrupted by drunk or stoned students, detection dogs are a welcome presence on campus. To civil libertarians, however, it represents a dangerous assault on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and it also presages the next logical step—random drug testing.

Schools find themselves being all things to all families these days, says Hamilton School District superintendent Duane Lyons. Forget the three R’s; they belong to another era. These days, schools must adopt sophisticated drug and alcohol policies that run the gamut from just saying no to intervention to dogs on campus.

The decision to use detection dogs at Hamilton High, says Lyons, was made when school officials began receiving discipline referrals for ever-younger kids—freshmen and sophomores. A counselor with the local substance abuse prevention program, called Crossroads, also approached school administrators with concerns about some students. Add that to a higher number of students who are not doing well in school and you’ve got a pattern, says Lyons.

“It appears to us that more in the past couple of years we’ve had more younger kids involved in substance abuse and it factors into students not succeeding,” Lyons says. The school board can expel problem students or compel them to withdraw, he notes, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

The problem with “the problem,” says one parent, lies in the solution. Steve Goheen is the father of a Hamilton High School student. And he very much objects to the use of dogs on campus.

“My main pitch is they’ve got a problem and they’ve grabbed a sledgehammer,” he says. “And at the cost of the students’ civil liberties.”

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the issue of the Fourth Amendment and students’ civil liberties, finding that school officials have the right to maintain order and safety on public school campuses by conducting searches and by using contraband-sniffing dogs.

The National Association of Attorneys General in 1999 issued a 47-page report designed to help teachers and administrators comply with the Fourth Amendment while carrying out searches on campus.

Among the guidelines is the proper use of detection dogs. A dog that “alerts” or hits on a suspicious smell concealed in a locker or book bag, according to the reference guide, constitutes a “suspicion-based search,” which is allowable under the Fourth Amendment.

But the guide also recommends that searches be justified at their inception, and that school officials have “reasonable grounds” to suspect that a search will turn up evidence of a crime or school violation. It is that phrase, “reasonable suspicion,” that grates on civil libertarians. Under the Fourth Amendment, the police must have “probable cause” to obtain a search warrant from a judge. Public schools are held to the lesser standard of “reasonable suspicion.”

A judge can issue a search warrant under the “reasonable suspicion” standard. Tanya Godfrey, a dog handler with Interquest, says a certificate issued for a dog by the National Narcotic Drug Dog Association is enough to convince a judge that “reasonable suspicion” exists.

The attorneys general also recommend that any school officials who are considering contraband searches with or without dogs first check with their own state constitution. In some states, they note, “courts have interpreted state constitutional provisions and state statutes to provide students greater rights than are afforded under the United States Constitution.”

Article II, Section 15 of the Montana Constitution specifically addresses the rights of people under 18, affording them the same rights granted to their elders. The state constitution also contains a strict privacy clause. “We understand the issue of privacy and search and seizure is more strict [in Montana] than in other states,” says Lyons. “But the issue is much less the dog or how we discover that someone has contraband. It’s what we do with the follow-up.”

At Hamilton, kids caught with drugs or alcohol are asked to acknowledge that they may have a substance abuse problem. If they do, the school will help them by steering them to the proper treatment. If not, “well, back to the criminal model.”

Whether to treat or punish is one thing Lyons and Goheen can agree on. Goheen says substance abuse is a societal problem that’s probably not going to be solved at the expense of violating students’ civil rights. Lyons agrees. “We’re pretty schizophrenic about it,” he says of the manner in which America goes about solving its drug and alcohol problem.

In Veronica (Ore.) School District vs. Acton, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that though the school brought in a drug dog, “the drug problem persisted.” Ultimately, the school resorted to random drug testing, a possibility Goheen fears. Lyons says the administration will “put its foot down” if the school board recommends random drug testing. “It’s not an avenue we want to go down. It’s so intrusive it doesn’t sound right to me.”

But if all efforts fail at curbing what Lyons calls a problem that’s probably larger than school officials suspect, random drug testing may be the only remaining option.

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