PORTSMOUTH — The School Committee has unanimously approved a policy that authorizes the continued use of trained drug-sniffing dogs in periodic searches of students’ lockers and cars.
“We are at an epidemic, catastrophic situation with the kids,” committee member Allen Shers said before the board approved the final reading of the policy, which can be viewed on the district’s website.
Back in April, citing the “proliferation of illegal substances, such as marijuana and other controlled substances among young people,” Portsmouth High School Principal Joseph Amaral sent out an e-mail informing parents that police and drug-sniffing dogs would sweep the school to make sure that no illegal drugs are found on campus.
Although the move was supported by police and Ray Davis, coordinator of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition (PCC), it raised concerns from PHS parent and local blogger John McDaid, as well as the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The School Committee agreed to review the policy while allowing the periodic sweeps to continue.
Mr. McDaid reiterated his concerns before Tuesday’s vote. While saying he understood the pressure the committee was under due to the opioid epidemic and reports of students selling drugs on school grounds, Mr. McDaid criticized the warrantless searches as being in conflict with laws protecting citizens from unreasonable searches.
“The quality of that educational environment is not best served by allowing the state to sniff our children’s backpacks with no probable cause. Think about the lesson here,” Mr. McDaid said.
The district’s locker search policy that was in place before Tuesday night already gave school administrators the powers they needed to search students suspected of misconduct, he said.
“But, importantly, it puts the school administrator between the student and the police. The policy before you turns that on its head, having the school district stand aside as the police bring their dogs into our classrooms,” he said. (See story at left for more on what the new policy says.)
Mr. McDaid said students learn not only in the classroom, but by the example set by the district.
“My serious concern is that we are, through this policy, teaching our children a powerful lesson about the right of the state to search their effects at will, inculcating in them a passive acceptance of surveillance at odds with our fundamental rights as Americans. I want all our students to know that at least some reasonable people in the community find this appalling,” he said.
Support for policy
Mr. Davis, of the PCC, spoke in favor of the policy, saying it will go a long way toward keeping drugs out of the schools.
“It is a given fact by law enforcement that having the dogs come into the schools is a protective factor that helps the conditions at many schools,” Mr. Davis said.
About 56,000 people died last year in the United States through drug overdoses, Mr. Davis said. “That’s more than in the entire Vietnam War,” he said.
A big reason for that was the introduction of fentanyl into the landscape of illegal substances, he said.
“I would thank God and anyone else if there’s a dog in that school that finds that before it gets to anyone else,” he said.
Committee members said while they understood Mr. McDaid’s concern, they had to take action to stem the problem of illegal drugs in the school. One member, Emily Copeland, noted the policy requires the written consent of a principal before any search, and that police cannot carry out searches themselves.
“It’s still firmly under the school administration’s control,” Ms. Copeland said.