Last night the Madison Metropolitan School District Board approved a school search policy that expanded the powers of police, upon request of school officials, to sweep the campuses of middle and high schools. The vote was 5 to 1 with a dissenting vote from Board President James Howard who expressed his concerns with the presence of police dogs in middle schools. That idea was also shared by board member Marj Passman who ultimately cast a “yes” vote despite her concerns about students’ rights.
The ACLU of Wisconsin’s Stacy Harbaugh was there to speak about the civil liberties implications of the policy. Here’s what she said:
The last time I was in front of the board to talk about the expansion of the school’s police/K9 policy, I shared some of the bad stories of poorly-written or poorly-implemented policies that prompted litigation in other schools when drug-dog searches started making news around a decade ago (read more about ACLU litigation and drug-dog opposition in New Mexico, South Dakota, South Carolina, Washington). Clearly this policy-as-written takes into consideration the mistakes of the past.
However, I feel that this proposed policy still brings up more questions than it provides answers.
1. What if it doesn’t work? Will the number of drug incidents be the only determining factor for success? Varying studies show that drug-sniffing dogs can either miss the presence of illegal drugs OR give false alerts when drugs aren’t actually present (read more in the Chicago Tribune about racial bias in the use of dog searches in traffic stops and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth study that echoed a couple of decades of the documentation of evidence that our paper currency can trigger dog alerts due to widespread cocaine residue). What happens if students bring drugs into school that the police dogs miss or if drug use shifts to a form that is harder for drug-sniffing dogs to detect such as prescription drugs? Will students then become desensitized to the sweeps and lockdowns? Is anyone considering a sunset provision?
2. At what point will we know this is too much? What does “periodic” mean? Will articulated suspicion trigger a Principal to contact police for a K9 sweep or will they just happen on a Principal’s whim? At what point will parents and students have a right to say that the presence of police and drug dogs in their schools have gone too far?
3. Will students be targeted for further search? If a police dog alerts, will students be pulled out of class to be searched? When banned items are confiscated and an “a police investigation conducted,” will students be informed of their right to remain silent? To call a parent? To an attorney? Students don’t give up 4th and 5th Amendment rights when they go to school, but their rights aren’t written into this policy.
4. What is the complaint procedure for false alerts? Even the most well-written policies could be poorly implemented. What is the complaint mechanism for students who are targeted for embarrassing and anxiety-producing searches by school officials and possibly police officers if a dog falsely alerts to the students’ locker or vehicle?
Finally, I would like the board to find a policy that respects civil liberties and avoids the lockdown. School lockdowns should be used only in emergencies such as bomb or weapons threats. Otherwise, the lockdown is a very punitive approach that is the opposite of supportive, nurturing atmosphere our schools should be.
What would this policy look like in practice if students knew drug-dog sweeps were possible or that they had happened, but were not aware of the presence of police dogs while they were in class? How can we ensure that the classroom learning experience of students who aren’t breaking the rules remains unaffected? The other side of “deterrent” or “prevention” is intimidation. And lockdowns intimidate all students, including innocent ones.
Ultimately, what does this teach our youth about their rights?
There were about eight other people who shared their thoughts during the public comments section of the meeting. Two supportive individuals decried the increase of drugs in school and in the community. One mother who also worked as a police officer told the board that she was equally concerned about the presence of drugs in school (and the potential for gun violence that comes with drug trade) as she was that students didn’t seem to think the policy was a big deal or that there could be human bias in the decision to bring in drug dogs to schools with a more diverse student body. Other policy opponents raised questions about how students whose families with more financial resources would better survive getting busted rather than not having equal treatment in the criminal justice system.
Ultimately, the policy-as-written doesn’t present an immediate violation of student privacy rights. Hopefully the school system will do as much diligence in reporting on the impact of K9 sweeps (including keeping data on how many students are pulled out of class for additional searches even if dogs falsely alert) as they did in reporting back on their engagement strategy to gather community feedback.
At some point in the future our community will scratch its head and wonder why there are so many young people in our criminal justice system. We will ask ourselves why it seemed like a veritable school-to-prison pipeline was constructed one decision and one policy at a time. We will wonder why we sought out a law enforcement solution to eliminating drugs when trends in drug availability and abuse were so clearly tied with an increase in poverty and a decrease in access to health care (neither of which our public schools have the power to fix). And in the future, we may look admirably at other school districts’ policies that took huge risks to ease up on zero-tolerance and find commonsense solutions to addiction and criminalizing youth.
The school board’s decision was also covered on madison.com.
(Also read about what happened when a drug dog alerted to a Pennsylvania student’s car, the car was searched and the student expelled, not for drugs, but for having work-related knives locked in his vehicle - this editorial says that zero-tolerance shouldn’t mean zero thought)