The smell test

Safety, civil liberties gnawed on as school board considers drug-dogs contract

THIS NARC BARKS Black Lab Indy, 4, has been sniffing drugs for Terry and Meg Bogue for the two years since they started a local franchise of Interquest Detection Canines. Indy was trained at Interquest’s Houston headquarters.

THIS NARC BARKS Black Lab Indy, 4, has been sniffing drugs for Terry and Meg Bogue for the two years since they started a local franchise of Interquest Detection Canines. Indy was trained at Interquest’s Houston headquarters.

Photo By Tom Angel

Company background: Interquest is based in Houston, Texas, and sells franchises for a startup cost of between $46,000 and $84,300. As part of some contracts, Interquest offers on-site urinalysis for drug-testing. The local franchisees have contracts with nearby schools, including in Live Oak, Biggs, Willows and Yuba City.

Big Brother barks. Or, in the case of Indy, the drug-sniffing dog, she sits quietly on her haunches waiting for a reward.

The Chico Unified School District is considering hiring a drug-detecting-canine company as a deterrent to police junior highs and high schools, an approach that raises concerns about civil liberties and how to deal with a social problem without eroding any remnant of trust teenagers may have in authority figures.

At a Nov. 5 meeting, the school board informally agreed to look into it further, perhaps introducing a drug-dog program as early as January 2004.

Trustee Steve O’Bryan said he’d like to see more data on the drug problem before he’d consider embracing the idea. “Casting suspicion on the entire student body is not necessarily the way to guarantee the citizens that I hope these students would grow up to be.”

The board heard a presentation by Terry Bogue, of Interquest Detection Canines of North Valley Counties, who has been trying for two years to get the CUSD to consider retaining his services. The typical 20 visits per year at $300 per visit would run $6,000, and the CUSD could use federal “Safe Schools” funding to cover the program.

In order to legally justify the use of drug dogs, said CUSD Attorney Greg Einhorn, the district would have to show that a widespread drug problem on its campuses triggers “reasonable suspicion” to search. A recent survey of 11th-graders found that 26 percent of them had been drunk or high on school property. It is not clear if such survey results would meet the reasonable-suspicion criteria.

O’Bryan said the idea that, if sued, the district would be in the position of having to produce numbers to prove a drug problem was “rather disturbing.”

In court cases, most rulings have held that it is a search when the dogs sniff an actual person but not when property such as cars or luggage is sniffed.

CUSD Assistant Superintendent Kelly Mauch said, “Yes, a drug dog is a search,” and it’s already allowable under the school’s search policy. All searches would be random.

Reached for comment later, Steven Post-Jeys, a Chico civil-liberties advocate who helped the district write the policy in 2000, said the use of drug-sniffing dogs is unconstitutional. “Without reasonable suspicion, I have a problem with these types of searches,” he said. “Unless they can find the actual contraband, it becomes a real can of worms.”

The Interquest dogs “react” by sitting down when they smell methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, LSD, heroin, ecstasy, Oxycontin, Ritalin, Sudafed, Benadryl, Valium, alcoholic beverages—even gunpowder. They cannot differentiate among the substances.

That was something that worried Trustee Anthony Watts, who said later that, although he supports the proposal, he’d rather not have students “flagged” for what might be leftover allergy pills.

Bogue, who has contracts with 19 schools, said incidents of drug and alcohol use on campus reduce to almost nothing after the dogs are introduced.

Nonaggressive Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers sniff lockers, cars, common areas, classrooms, backpacks and the like but “never, ever sniff a person,” Bogue said.

If the dog reacts, the Interquest team inspects the article in a school office, with the student and administrators present. “We treat students with respect,” Bogue said, and by the end, “they’re usually petting our dog.”

If contraband or drug residue is found, the school would choose whether to bring in the police. Mauch said the schools would make a note of the search in the student’s record and notify his or her parent.

Asked by Watts about the rate of false positives, Bogue said, “There is no such thing as a false positive.” If the dog reacts, “the object could be there or the smell left behind could be there.” There is no chance, he said, that the dog made a mistake.

Watts also worried that the drug-dogs-as-deterrent approach could just “force the real problem underground.” Students would still get drunk or high, but off-campus.

Principal Mike Rupp of Pleasant Valley High School was one of several administrators speaking in favor of the proposal. Drug and alcohol use on campus is “very high compared to other years and moving higher all the time,” he said. “Whatever tools you can provide to help us we would appreciate.”

Post-Jeys said the district is overlooking what he believes would make a big difference in drug use on campus. “If they were to have a closed-campus policy, they would eliminate most of their concerns,” he said. “They’re not addressing the issue as a whole; they’re doing what’s going to be most politically expedient.”

At the meeting, O’Bryan asked what would happen if a student asserted his or her Fourth Amendment rights and refused to be searched. “I do not believe there’s an opt-out policy,” Mauch replied.

CN&R intern Matt Graydon contributed to this report.