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April 1, 2006 - Daily News (WA)

Lawsuit Causes School To End Use Of Dogs For Random Drug Searches

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SPOKANE - Threatened with a lawsuit, a suburban Spokane school district has agreed to stop using dogs for random drug searches in its middle and high school, but the program could be reinstated if judges rule it is constitutional, a superintendent said Friday.

After receiving complaints from "some students and parents" from the Nine Mile Falls School District about the trained dogs sniffing students' belongings, the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Justice prepared a lawsuit, Center for Justice lawyer John Sklut said Friday.

A similar program began this year in the Longview School District, with drug dogs from a private Renton-based company conducting random searches in the middle and high schools. The Longview School Board approved the program last spring after years of hand-wringing over constitutional issues.

Interquest Detection Canines agreed in January 2004 to search Lakeside High and Lakeside Middle School each at least four times a year, looking for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

Dogs were wrong about 85 percent of the time they indicated something was amiss during searches, but the main issue was the students' constitutional privacy rights, Sklut said.

Nine Mile Falls Superintendent Michael Green said the district agreed this week to discontinue the dog searches because of the cost and time it would take to fight the ACLU in court. He said the district feels the use of drug dogs was proper and would reinstate their use if state or federal judges rule on the issue's constitutionality.

"We believed we were operating with total respect to students' constitutional rights," he said. "Never once did we randomly search a child with a drug dog. We searched lockers, or items left in vacant classrooms. Not one time did a dog sniff a student. We were extremely careful about that."

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU of Washington in Seattle, said there is little case law dealing with the issue of clearing students out of a classroom so dogs can sniff their personal belongings.

"What Nine Mile Falls was doing, we believe, violates the students' constitutional rights because directly sniffing students' possessions without any reason to suspect an individual has done anything wrong is not allowed," Honig said.

A representative of Interquest Detection Canines, a Houston-based security company that says its dogs are used in 1,200 school districts nationwide, did not immediately return a call for comment from The Associated Press on Friday.

Green said the company was hired "as a way to send a message we were serious about keeping drugs out of schools."

Nine Mile Falls, an unincorporated bedroom community just northwest of Spokane's city limits along the Spokane River, has no greater drug problem in its Lakeside Middle School and Lakeside High School than any other suburban schools, Green conceded.

"Our drug problem in our schools is probably no different than drugs at virtually any suburban school," he said. "There are kids who choose to use illegal drugs and bring illegal drugs to school. Our goal is to keep schools safe and drugs out of schools."

Civil liberties groups support efforts to keep schools drug-free, Sklut said. But the method of searching students' possessions without probable cause violates the students' rights under federal and state constitutions, he said.

"We support Nine Mile Falls efforts to keep schools drug free, but we have an issue of them using dogs as a tool in the fight," he said.

"Dogs are costly and inefficient and ineffective, and their constitutionality is in question." Only one parent complained about use of drug dogs, while "you can multiply by tens" the number of parents and students who said they favor the program, Green said.

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