Published Online:

Schools Use Dogs, Metal Detectors In Security Checks

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In the New Orleans public schools, where a number of "weapons incidents" occurred during the 1981-82 school year, the school board gave preliminary approval this month to a plan that would allow some school personnel to use metal detectors to catch students carrying concealed weapons onto school grounds.

In Burbank, Calif., a district where a school official describes drug use as "probably less" than in many schools, the school board has given administrators the go-ahead to develop a plan that would bring specially trained dogs in to sniff out illicit drugs and other substances in students' lockers.

The two districts are responding to the problem of "contraband" in the schools in a fashion that is, although not routine, becoming increasingly common. Faced with the need to protect students, as well as to reduce the incidence of illegal behavior, school officials are using security tactics once confined to the military and to customs and law-enforcement agencies.

Often with the help of local police, they are using drug-detecting dogs (known in the military as "biosensors") and metal detectors to find concealed weapons. In many cases in which dogs are used, an equally important objective is to send a powerful message to the students and the community that, as one school official put it, "drugs and school don't mix."

"Obviously, the cause of all this has been drugs and weapons," said Ivan Gluckman, general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (nassp). "Schools have tried to find ways to deal with all this in the least intrusive way possible. There have been problems with general shakedowns and locker searches--they've had objections from parents and students."

The courts have sympathized with those objections, Mr. Gluckman said, on the grounds that in general law, one is supposed to have a reasonable basis for searches. "So I think in an attempt to find a more acceptable means of preventing these things from being in schools, they looked for other methods to find them," he said.

"I've gathered in the media that people think it's an attempt to be more intrusive," Mr. Gluckman added. "It's really an attempt to be less intrusive. And it is also in response to the fact that courts were and are demanding that students be protected."

There are no statistics available on the number of school districts that are employing--or "deploying," as one security director said--the canine squads. Nor does anyone know how many metal detectors are in use in the schools. Robert J. Ruble, the director of the Texas-based National Alliance for Safe Schools and an expert on crime prevention in the schools, characterizes the use of dogs as "infrequent," and of metal detectors as rare.

School districts in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas, and Vermont are among those using, or planning to use, drug-detecting dogs. Metal detectors are used from time to time in New York City and the District of Columbia, and school officials in Houston and New Orleans are considering their use.

Opinion Divided

But opinion remains divided on whether school officials should take these steps to keep illegal or unauthorized substances out of the schools.

Some argue that dogs, metal detectors, and any similar measures, represent unwarranted invasions of students' privacy and have no place in the schools.

"Those types of security measures are antithetical to the kind of atmosphere that should prevail in the public schools," said Alan Reitman, associate executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu). The aclu has opposed the use of drug-detecting dogs in schools and would be likely to apply the same criticism to the use of metal detectors, he said.

Justice William J. Brennan, dissenting from a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision not to review one case involving drug-detecting dogs, Doe v. Renfrow, argued that the use of the dogs in schools violated students' Fourth Amendment right to privacy. "The problem of drug abuse in the schools is not to be solved by conducting schoolhouse raids on unsuspecting students absent particularized information regarding drug users or suppliers," Justice Brennan wrote.

Noted Shelton E. Lee, director of safety and security for the District of Columbia public schools: "One has to be sensitive to the community when you talk about the dogs. We don't use them in conjunction with kids. Dogs are not the things you want to use with kids, unless you want to get run out of town." Mr. Lee pointed out that, especially in the black community, unpleasant memories linger of law-enforcement officers' use of dogs in the civil-rights movement.

"The key issue here is: What are you teaching students?" said Greg Meyers, chapter director for the aclu of Central Ohio, which has voiced strong objections to the Columbus searches but plans no litigation. "You're subjecting students to arbitrary, random, unfocused searches. You're using fear to control the drug problem."

That they might instill a fear of bringing drugs or weapons into schools is, many school officials concede, something they think about.

But they argue also that their main motive is to protect innocent students and to help those who have drug problems. They say that the magnitude of the problem justifies the measures and that the courts, at this point, tend to agree that within limits, searches are acceptable.

They also point out that there are positive and negative ways to put such security practices into effect; if done properly, the searches are an effective deterrent to drug use in the schools, they contend.

"We do this because we care," said James E. Boster, executive director for high schools and career centers in the Columbus public schools, where two sniff-searches have been conducted this school year. "We care about students who want to go to school in the proper atmosphere and about those who have problems, or who might develop problems." He emphasized that prevention and intervention remain the district's preferred ways of handling the drug-abuse problem.

In Columbus, Mr. Boster said, public opinion has been weighted heavily in favor of the searches, and the local paper published a "keep on sniffing" editorial.

Strong Community Support

In Burbank, school officials decided to use the dogs not because they perceived an enormous drug problem, but because the local police offered to conduct the searches. Currently, they are developing a policy on the searches and telling students about upcoming searches. They expect to begin in March, and say that the community is strongly supportive of the measure.

"What we've done is hold a series of demonstrations at each school,'' said Wayne Boulding, superintendent of schools in Burbank. "At the meetings, students are notified that we will be using the dogs to check lockers. Our timing will be such that we will not do it when the halls are occupied by students."

"We're not going to use dogs to detect drugs on students," Mr. Boulding said. "We're going to use them as a tool for principals to check lockers."

In Houston, where school officials have been conducting sniff searches for three years, an official said that the searches do deter students from bringing drugs to school.

"I think it is effective," said Leslie Burton, assistant superintendent for security for the Houston Independent School District. "It's doing two things: It's making students aware [that] we're going to pop in and check two areas, [lockers and cars], where they might be storing it. There are not too many of them who want to take a chance of carrying it on them in the school day. I think we're pushing that type of thing out. Also, lockers are an excellent place if they want to leave it overnight and not worry about storing it."

Effective Method

Some school officials who have been involved in the dog searches say this method of deterring drug use is most effective if combined with educational programs.

That approach is used by about 50 school districts in Texas that have hired Security Associates International, a Houston-based security firm, to bring in the dogs. Company officials say they are aware of only two other businesses, both in Texas, that work with schools.

"We talk about safety," said Steven Blumenthal, general manager for continental operations. "We use the canines as way of getting the message across. We also talk about safety in terms of staying away from certain substances. Don't get into bottles, don't get into medicine. We're stressing basic fundamental safety."

For junior-high students, Mr. Blumenthal said, the program stresses ways to deal with peer pressure. Students need information, good self-images, the skill to decide how to respond to pressure--and an "excuse" for saying "no" to their peers, which the dog searches can provide.

"As a 7th grader, if you're in a rest room, and a kid says, 'hey, take a toke'--how do you avoid getting involved? If there is a program in effect that says dogs may come to conduct a search at any time, a youngster can say, 'I don't want to get caught because the dogs may be coming on campus,"' Mr. Blumenthal said. Sometimes, the searches are conducted on consecutive days so that students do not become overconfident.

Mr. Ruble of the National Alliance for Safe Schools argues that the sniff searches are effective only on a very temporary basis unless they are presented to students properly.

And officials in other districts say that they prefer to handle drugs in the school by other means. Some, like Mr. Lee in the District of Columbia, say that it is too problematic a method of uncovering wrongdoers. Others--in New York City and Los Angeles, for example--say that they have not really considered it.

Metal detectors, although apparently used only in a few districts, are subject to the same kinds of questions raised by the use of drug-detecting dogs.

"The utilization of metal detectors is fairly new," said Edgar B. Dews, president of the 350-member National Association of School Security Directors and a security administrator for the District of Columbia public schools. "I am not sure how many are using them, or how they've been received by the community. I would be concerned about the reaction of community."

Mr. Dews said he planned to survey the members of his organization to see how many are using metal detectors.

In the District of Columbia, Mr. Dews said, school personnel have received no complaints about the use of the detectors, which are used to screen those coming into dances and athletic events.

"I think the students want to feel they're protected," he said. "Sometimes the students are much more vocal than the adults in requesting that security be implemented."

Noted Mr. Lee, "Any time you get that large a crowd of people, you're going to have knives. A year ago, zipguns were a kind of a fad. Since they know that they get searched, these things are not prevalent at all." However, he said, they are an effective deterrent only "in that selective use, for that captive audience. Otherwise, you just can't set the stage to use them effectively."

Metal Detectors

"Selective use" of metal detectors is also the method employed in New York City schools; the devices are used to screen students going into athletic events and in the schools if requested by the principal, according to Robert H. Terte, spokesman for the district.

In only one instance--at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn--has their use caused any commotion among students, Mr. Terte said. After the students went through the detectors, some expressed their dissatisfaction with the procedure by overturning cafeteria tables and being disruptive.

"On the other hand," Mr. Terte said, "there were students who were strongly supportive of the principal's request [for detectors.]" And weapons were found, including some that students discarded outside the area where the screening was taking place, he added.

In New Orleans, the school board has approved on first reading a policy that would allow principals to search students with metal detectors if they have probable cause to believe the student may be carrying a weapon. The detectors could also be used at after-school activities, according to Charles F. Williams, assistant superintendent.

The plan has encountered some opposition, however, so board members are proceding with caution, Mr. Williams said. One parents' group has called the use of the metal detectors "police tactics."

Houston officials are still pondering the use of the metal detectors and have obtained samples from manufacturers. "They would be used in much the same manner as the dogs," Mr. Burton said. "We'll just drop in suddenly and there we'll be." But, he added, this would be done ''only in places we have just cause, where we have reason to believe we have a heavy infusion of weapons in the school, where we'd had a shooting or some cuttings and we felt we had to do something to stop it."

Others, however, would draw the line at metal detectors. "It's a very difficult thing to do," said Mr. Boster of Columbus. "We have thought about it; we have instances of weapons. But we have not given any serious consideration to that [the metal detectors.]"

Legal Issues

Administrators in the districts where dogs are used say they are very much aware of the legal issues that surround their use. (To date, lawyers say, there have been no cases involving the use of metal detectors in the schools.)

Those issues are complex, and the courts have, to a degree, ruled inconsistently, Mr. Gluckman said.

In Doe v. Renfrow, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that school officials, acting in loco parentis, may conduct searches using dogs if there is "reasonable cause" to believe that contraband will be found.

However, the court ruled against strip searches. "It does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year-old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude,'' the court noted. "More than that: it is a violation of any known principle of human decency."

In 1982, in the most recent case, Horton v. Goose Creek Independent School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the principle that school officials may conduct locker searches using dogs, but cautioned against searching individual students without ''probable cause."

"Generally, what's beginning to develop is a sort of hierarchy in which the courts are beginning to look at the degree of intrusiveness of the search," said Mr. Gluckman of the nassp

'Reasonable Suspicion'

"The more intrusive it is into a person's privacy and dignity," he added, "the more they need on the other side of reasonable suspicion and danger to the school. You're beginning to use a sort of sliding scale. If you want to look at a kid's locker, the courts are not going to demand as much of the school as if they wanted to search a person."

The Horton case, however, was returned to the lower court for trial on another key issue: the reliability of drug-detecting dogs. Determining reliability--the number of times a dog indicates the presence of a substance it has been trained to recognize, compared to the number of times the substance is present--will not be an easy matter for the courts, according to Mr. Blumenthal.


U.S. customs agents have used dogs in drug searches for several years; legal questions surround school use.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented