Scratch that sniff

Pleasant Valley High School student receives suspension for refusing search

DOGGING THE SYSTEM Meghann Trott (right) stands with her friend Ashley Uhland after being suspended for refusing to cooperate with a randon drug-sniffing search.

DOGGING THE SYSTEM Meghann Trott (right) stands with her friend Ashley Uhland after being suspended for refusing to cooperate with a randon drug-sniffing search.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Something just didn’t smell right to Meghann Trott.

Trott, a junior at Pleasant Valley High School, was handed a three-day suspension this week after refusing to allow her backpack to be searched by a drug-sniffing dog. Trott, who is described by her mother as a quiet kid who never gets in trouble, said it violated her rights as a student and as an American.

The three-day suspension, however, was retracted after Julia Harumi Mass, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, called saying the suspension was inappropriate under the circumstances. Trott was in school the next day, and possibly a precedent for students to opt out of random drug-dog searches.

On Feb. 15, Trott and the rest of her fifth-period science class were asked to leave their belongings and exit the room while Indy, the black Labrador used by the district, sniffed through the students’ backpacks. Trott said she almost went along with the search but refused to go through with it at the last second.

“In my heart I was thinking, ‘For the last three years I’ve been walked on, and if I don’t stand up, nobody probably will,'” Trott said.

Trott said she was told to stand in the corner with her backpack while the dog sniffed through her classmates’ belongings. Searches of backpacks are not allowed while they’re in a student’s possession, she said. After Indy sniffed through her classmates’ belongings, the students were let back in. She was taken to the Principal’s Office.

Assistant Principal Ginger Picchi said Trott was suspended for “defiance of authority” after refusing to allow the dog to sniff her backpack. The refusal, she said, led school officials to believe that the student might be hiding something. Picchi said to her knowledge it was the first time a student has refused to have his or her bag searched.

“Generally students are willing to allow their bags to be searched,” she said.

Picchi said classroom numbers are randomly selected from a jar and that generally nothing illegal is found.

“More commonly we’ve found more prescription drugs than illegal drugs,” she said.

Trott said when she arrived at the Principal’s Office she was told to either empty her bag, have the police perform a search or have her mother contacted and receive a suspension.

Trott’s mother, Pamela, was notified and arrived at the school. They were told that the suspension would be lifted if they allowed the bag to be searched. Trott said she emptied her bag to reveal there was nothing illegal in it but still took the suspension.

Pamela Trott said she’s proud that her daughter stood up for her rights.

“I don’t think they expected a student to speak up,” she said.

Pamela Trott said she contacted the ACLU after the program was approved last year, essentially stating that her daughter would not comply with the searches. She said at least five letters from the ACLU have been sent to the district, claiming the random searches “violate the constitutional rights of your students” and requesting documentation as to why searches were necessary.

The first letter, addressed to CUSD Superintendent Scott Brown, was sent in September, 2004, and states that “the seizure of students’ belongings for the purpose of conducting a canine search is unconstitutional because it is not based on individualized suspicion.”

Greg Einhorn, attorney for the CUSD, could not be reached for comment before CN&R press time.

CUSD officials first thought drug-dog searches might be illegal, since their local policy, which was revised in 2000, bans “suspicionless” searches. But based on surveys that found a significant number of students in the CUSD had tried or considered trying drugs, the district is able to establish a blanket suspicion of an entire campus.

In August, 2004, the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees unanimously approved the program allowing drug dogs to randomly sniff students’ backpacks for contraband or any other illegal items. However, it wasn’t without a few initial concerns by board members.

Former board President Steve O’Bryan worried about embarrassment for students who might be singled out because of false alarms but said conversations with parents and administrators convinced him to change his mind.

Current Trustee Anthony Watts had issues with the dogs picking up the scent of legal drugs like Sudafed but decided in favor, since there would be no automatic arrests of students.

The district had contacted Interquest Detection Canines to provide the services, which include more than 50 visits to Pleasant Valley, Chico and Fair View high school campuses throughout the school year.

Interquest shows up on campus unannounced, and in addition to the classroom searches, the drug dog is also authorized to sniff through the parking lot, lockers and bathrooms.

Terry Bogue, of Interquest, said random searches are part of a deterrence program and that the company even has the option of coming twice in a day.

“We try to vary [the visits] so they can’t figure out when we’re coming,” Bogue said.

But Meghann Trott says random searches without cause violate her rights as a student and as an American. When Trott told P.V. Principal Michael Rupp that she was defending her rights, she said he responded with, “You don’t have those rights.”

The incident comes after the Jan. 24 Supreme Court decision to allow drug-sniffing dogs to search vehicles of motorists pulled over for routine traffic stops.

She said she believes it’s hypocritical to teach students about civil rights in the classroom and then not follow through with their procedures.

“The irony of the whole thing is that there’s a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall in the hallway.” The ugly red-and-white cell phone tower erected in a north Chico neighborhood four years ago signaled doom this week for a proposal by the Chico Area Recreation District to attach wireless towers to the baseball field light standards in Hooker Oak Park.

The allowance would have called for amending the city’s ordinance regulating cell tower placement in open spaces such as parks. In 2000 residents protested Pacific Bell’s construction of a tower in the Mariposa neighborhood. But since the tower was located in the county, the city was powerless to stop it. But it did adopt a detailed ordinance strictly restricting them within the city’s jurisdiction.

Last September CARD made its proposal to allow the towers, which serve the thousands of private cell phones used in the Chico area. City Planning Director Kim Seidler pointed out that the CARD proposal did not call for the building of a new tower and would not be within 500 feet of a school or residential area, all restricted by the ordinance.

Mary Cahill, the CARD general manager, said revenue raised by the wireless companies installing the towers would be used to improve the lights at the ball field in Hooker Oak as well as improvements at Community and other parks.

Cahill said the proposal was nothing new, that other California communities were doing the same thing.

However, a stream of opposition to the idea followed Cahill to the lectern to argue against the towers on basis of health issues, aesthetics and fears of weakening the ordinance that some of them had helped create.

“Parks need money, but this wasn’t thought out,” said Harold Carlson, a Mariposa neighborhood resident. “This is just chipping away at the ordinance.”

He told the council that the city was not responsible to make sure “every teenager in Chico can run up a $300-a-year monthly cell phone bill. These [wireless] companies already make a lot of money.”

Other speakers warned of possible health issues connected to radio waves emitted by the towers and that making this exception could lead to the installation of towers in Chico’s beloved Bidwell Park.

Indy, the black laborador used for the searches is part of Interquest Detaction Canines.

Photo By Tom Angel

When Doug Perske said the council would be opening a Pandora’s Box with the approval, Councilman Dan Herbert pointed out that a use permit would be needed with each new tower attachment.

“We have a chance to disguise a fairly necessary evil,” Herbert said. “I bet there are only about 5 percent of the people here [in the council chambers] who don’t have a cell phone attached to their belts or in their pockets. This is a great opportunity for money for the parks.”

Perske was not swayed, noting a use permit was simply a procedural action.

Herbert moved to approve the request, and Councilman Larry Wahl seconded.

But Councilwomen Ann Schwab and Maureen Kirk voted against the motion, creating a 2-2 tie, which meant it died.

Only four members voted because Councilman Steve Bertagna owns a business that contracts with wireless companies, and Councilman Andy Holcombe and Mayor Scott Gruendl were absent.The small fires that broke out last Sunday at two homes in west Chico were apparently started by a bored 10-year-old, reported Chico Fire Department spokeswoman Marie Fickert. The boy, who had been spotted selling trinkets and pens door-to-door in the neighborhood around the time the fires started, was found after a woman reported that he made strange remarks to her while she was extinguishing the smaller of the two blazes.

“While she was stomping on the fire, this young male juvenile approached her carrying this box of items he was selling and asked her if she would like to buy anything,” Fickert said. “He was making a comment on what he felt potentially could have started the fire. I can’t disclose exactly what was said, just that it was an odd comment for a young child to make. … She told him she wasn’t interested in buying anything—she was busy putting out a fire.”

The two fires, one at a house on the 500 block of West Third Street, the other at a sorority house a block away on West Fourth, broke out about 1 p.m. Sunday. Both were extinguished by passersby before the Fire Department was contacted.

At the Alpha Phi sorority house, three men who happened to be driving by spotted the flames from the street. The men reportedly pulled over and attempted to quench the fire with the house’s hose, but it would not reach. Luckily, there were some 5-gallon, cooler-size bottles of water near the house that they opened and poured on the flames. A fire crew responded within minutes of a cell-phone caller’s report, but the fire was already out when they arrived. One woman was home at the time but was not injured.

The house sustained about $1,300 in damage, including some blistered paint, a tattered awning and a burned trash can and three-wheeled “bed racer” the women had constructed. The other fire, which was started on the front porch of a private residence, caused almost no damage.

Fickert said she didn’t know why the boy was out selling items by himself.

“He’d also been observed in the neighborhood the previous Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, selling items from a cardboard box,” she said. “He had mostly trinkets, pens and things.”

The fires were apparently started not out of spite but out of boredom. The boy, whose identity was not disclosed, was cited for arson and released to his parents.Chico’s 100-year-old Second Street building that has housed a movie theater, including the El Rey, for most of its existence is being purchased by Eric Hart, the man who has partially restored the Senator Theater on Main Street.

But the El Rey will not be restored. Instead, it will be completely renovated inside and out to create first-floor retail space, second- and third-floor office space and a partially underground 15-space parking lot.

Hart and project partner Tom van Overbeek of San Jose asked the Chico City Council this week to consider giving up three to four parking spaces in its public lot behind the theater to allow the project to go forward. Those spots would be needed to allow access to the underground lot. In turn the developers would give the city an equal number of spaces in the new lot.

Hart told the council he would save the theater if he could but that its run-down condition and the fact that single-screen movie theaters cannot compete with modern-day multiplexes made that option less than desirable.

Hart told the council he was trying to gauge its members’ feelings on the project, adding that he would name the building the Majestic, its original moniker.

Local architect David Griffith explained that the project would call for hollowing out the building and reconstructing it from the top down with steel reinforcement.

The theater was built in 1905, van Overbeek said earlier in the day during a tour for local media. It functioned initially as an Elks Lodge, offices and retail space and a vaudeville theater. A few months after opening, a silver screen was installed and motion pictures were offered, creating Chico’s first movie theater.

In 1925 it was renamed the National Theater, after the building’s owner, the National Theater Syndicate, and an illuminated sign was bolted to the front of the building. In 1939 it was closed for remodeling and opened a few months later under the name of the American. A new sign was installed.

In 1946 a party by members of the American Legion, who now occupied the third floor, sparked a fire that completely gutted the inside of the building. The theater was rebuilt and opened more than a year later as the El Rey, so named simply because the owners located and purchased an illuminated theater sign from a burned-down Oakland theater called the El Rey.

Hart had concerns about community protests over losing Chico’s first and now last downtown movie theater. But by the time he stood before council Tuesday night, the chambers were empty.The Chico Unified School District trustees still face a big decision of whether to close schools to save money. But they are not alone.

The ad-hoc group Schools Unified for Better Solutions (SUBS) met again on Feb. 15 to look at additional money-saving options for the district. The main concern of the group was to formulate realistic ideas that hadn’t been brought up by the school board or district staff in order to avoid closing school campuses. The district needs to cut about $1 million from its budget.

Jonathan Evans, co-chairman of SUBS, said it is important that the group present only viable options in order to maintain credibility with the board and reported that the group concentrated on approximately five of the best ideas this week.

“We want to get in there and contribute to the process before a bad decision is made,” he said.

The group currently has about 50 members. They have been divided into subgroups, including a Budget Committee, an Income-Generating Committee, a Demographics Committee and a Cost-Cutting Committee.

Louise Wong said she and other members of the Income-Generating Committee are trying to educate parents on the financial impact of absences. Simply increasing the district’s current average daily attendance (ADA) by 1 percent would generate about $600,000, she said.

Alan Stephenson, director of elementary education, has already given the group approval to go forth with “Perfect Attendance Day” on March 8, when it will encourage students and parents to attend class, Wong noted.

Claire Johnson, spokesperson for SUBS, said the group will also look into working with Tehama Group Communications, a student-run PR agency at Chico State University, to create an ADA campaign for next year.

The Cost-Cutting Committee is also exploring the option of eliminating 33 portables from various school sites, a move that could save the district more than $300,000. Johnson said there are currently six schools in the district operating at only partial capacity, and some portables at those campuses could be eliminated.

The Budget Committee is the largest of the four committees. Jeff Carter, a committee member, said one of his group’s main priorities is to work within the budget to save money. “We need to know the numbers with precision to find solutions within the confines of the budget,” Carter said.

Carter said one of the concerns was with over-budgeting. He said looking at past years’ budgets, he noticed that the district was budgeting more than it was spending.

In an e-mail to the group addressing the issue, Randy Meeker, assistant superintendent of business services, said a statewide computer glitch made some of the current budgets a bit confusing.

He explained that statutory benefits for pupil services, instruction and other services had been placed in a single line item for the general administration, causing the appearance of a discrepancy between what the district budgeted and what it actually spent. Meeker said that the glitch would be fixed for the upcoming budget.

Carter said his group will attend the budget information meeting on Feb. 22 at the district office conference room to work with Meeker to get a better understanding of budget issues.

Rick Anderson, the president of the CUSD Board of Trustees, said the district would be making critical decisions probably by May.

He said the board is working on paring down the list of 20 possible spending reductions, which include eliminating health aides and the elementary music program. Anderson said the district will notify certificated personnel, such as counselors, by March 15 if cuts are to be made and that it will have until May 15 to notify classified personnel, such as those holding secretarial and custodial positions.

He said the board is keeping communication open with groups like SUBS and members of the community. “We want to keep dialogue open with anyone who feels they can help be part of the solution,” Anderson said.

Anderson said everything is still on the table and that the coming months will be a challenge for the board and the community.

“Right now anything is possible."