The narc wore fur
CUSD hires drug-sniffing dog to search campuses
Indy, a sleek black Labrador retriever, scours the Parkview Elementary School cafeteria, pouncing on backpacks and pulling at purses, her keen nose eagerly scanning the room. She’s named after the Indy 500 because she’s fast, and it takes her only a few seconds to hone in on the contraband—a light beer and some firecrackers—her trainers have hidden.
“She loves this. This is one big game for her,” says Meg Bogue, who, with her husband, Terry, owns Interquest Detection Canines of North Valley Counties.
When the dog “alerts,” stopping short and sitting on her haunches to look expectantly at trainer Terry Bogue, the room full of moms—there for a 13th District Parent-Teachers Association training day—explodes in applause.
The Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Aug. 18 to contract with Interquest for $18,000 in drug-sniffing services. For a price of $300 per visit, Indy will visit the Pleasant Valley, Chico and Fair View high school campuses 20 times each over the course of a school year.
Police, principals and parents all told the school board in recent weeks that they welcome drug dogs as “another tool” to keep kids safe.
“There was absolutely no resistance. I was surprised,” said Kelly Staley, assistant superintendent for the CUSD.
The program is already in place in 25 schools in Butte County, and the only thing holding Chico Unified back from signing on was money, after a November 2003 presentation by Interquest won over board members. Fortunately for the CUSD’s general fund, legislators have been throwing dollars at school safety in recent years.
Steve O’Bryan, who is arguably the most liberal member of the school board, said conversations with parents and administrators convinced him to put aside what he called his “deeply held beliefs” and go along with the drug-dog approach.
“I still have concerns about individual students being singled out because of a false alert from one of the dogs and the potential embarrassment for the student,” O’Bryan said in an interview.
Trustee Anthony Watts also had some misgivings early on, but mainly because the dogs sniff legal drugs such as Sudafed.
“My original concern was over possible ‘false positives’ on residuals from over-the-counter medications,” he told the News & Review. “I had concerns that a student could face disciplinary action simply because he or she had a cold and had been taking them, or that they were in a backpack.”
But after learning that there’s no automatic arrest of students, and that kids should be taking their medications at the nurse’s office anyway, Watts said he “decided that my concerns over civil liberties were superseded by my desire to have a safe and drug-free environment in our high schools.”
At first, CUSD officials thought drug-dog searches might not be legal, since their local policy, revised in 2000, bans “suspicionless” searches. But they found a loophole: Based on surveys that found a significant number of students in the CUSD had tried, or considered trying, drugs, the district can establish a blanket suspicion of an entire campus.
At the Aug. 4 school board meeting, School Resource Officer Brent McBride of the Chico Police Department lent credence to that idea. “We do have a drug problem,” he said. “There’s a significant amount of drug activity that occurs in the classroom during class time.”
In a guide the California Department of Justice produced for schools and law enforcement use, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote that “using dogs to detect drugs does not constitute a search.” The dog sniffs the air, not people, and when it detects contraband, reasonable suspicion is established.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union is bending its stance on searches at schools, signing on to a Senate bill that would discourage random drug testing but allow it with “reasonable suspicion” as long as students and parents sign off on it and the refusal to do so wouldn’t jeopardize their participation in extracurricular activities.
Terry Bogue, of Interquest, is sold, naturally. He doesn’t even go on the defensive when questioned about civil liberties; he’s confident the use of drug- and weapon-sniffing dogs is the right thing to do.
“We have seen our districts go from double-digit expulsions for contraband … down to, for some of them, zero,” he told the PTA parents. “If you don’t have any contraband, you don’t have to worry about it.”
Indy can sniff out illegal drugs, prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, over-the-counter drugs such as Bufferin, gun powder and alcoholic beverages.
Interquest shows up on the campuses unannounced, and in addition to setting Indy to work on the parking lot, rows of lockers, public areas and bathrooms (Kotex dispensers are a popular stash spot), a few classrooms are randomly drawn for inspection. The students leave the room, but if Indy reacts on someone’s belongings, that person is taken to the vice principal’s office to explain him- or herself.
“We are an agent of the school. We are not the police. We don’t arrest anybody. We don’t punish anybody,” Bogue said.
It’s a process that Pleasant Valley High School Principal Mike Rupp described to the school board as “never embarrassing.” If there’s no contraband, only residue, no action is taken. Otherwise, the students are subject to school policy.
“If it can deter a few kids, if it can be a reason kids say, ‘No, I’m not going to bring that marijuana in my sock today…,' " Rupp said, "I don’t think it’s an invasion of anyone’s privacy."