Local Commentary

The Little City Weed

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Falls Church City school officials using police dogs to conduct suspicion-less searches is a bad idea, being poorly executed.

 

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Falls Church City school officials using police dogs to conduct suspicion-less searches is a bad idea, being poorly executed. The practice should be prohibited and school administrators held accountable for their lack of judgment in implementing a deeply flawed and controversial school policy.

Stories have leaked out about the increased presence of police at the schools and the escalating use of law enforcement tactics. The school community, usually careful to avoid negative publicity, has been forced to acknowledge it has been dealing with disciplinary issues associated with the use of a synthetic version of marijuana, an unauthorized house party which resulted in the citation of a number of student-athletes, and the suspension of a teacher allegedly in connection with a dog sweep of the school.

The principal of George Mason High School recently informed parents the school had conducted another dog sweep of all its students. On the day of the sweep the announcement was made the entire school was on lockdown. All children were ordered to take their bags and place them in the hallways. Officers from Arlington, Fairfax City and Falls Church City used federally certified police dogs to sniff each bag. The owners of bags on which the dogs alerted were immediately brought to the office for a “discussion” with a school administrator. The parents of the students were contacted after the “discussion.”

School officials have been notably uncommunicative about their actions. There is no policy for conducting dog sweeps in city schools. There has been no explanation for why the administration felt the sweep was needed. It is not known if the dogs were trained to alert on specific drugs, medicines, tobacco, firearms, and/or bomb making materials. The scope of search, whether it extended to school grounds, or to persons, or whether or not an alert was used as a basis for conducting full warrantless searches of a bag or the owner, was discussed. There has been no disclosure of results of the sweep. There has been no elaboration about the “discussion” with students – who was present, what was asked, how law enforcement was involved, what disciplinary action was taken, or why parents were not notified prior to the “discussion.”

The use of dogs to search students without individualized suspicion is a growing, but legally controversial, issue. Contrary to popular misconception, schools do not have plenary authority over students and the US Supreme Court has not ruled on whether or not suspicionless dog searches at schools violate constitutional rights. The incidences of misuse of dogs; where the animals caused elementary-age children to involuntarily urinate themselves, or poorly trained dogs bit students, or vaguely documented alerts led to strip searches of teenage girls, should give parents pause.
Falls Church is a small community which has invested in its elite education system. The investment in teachers, parental communication, attendance polices, health screenings, and counseling programs provides a way to deal with drug issues which is effective, scalable to legitimate health and safety concerns, and which does not turn all students into criminal suspects.

 


Michael Gardner is a quixotic citizen and founder of the Blueweeds community blog.