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F.C. Community Roils Over Controversial Drug-Sniffing Dogs’ Search at GMHS

Citizen Comments Sharply Divided in Internet Debate

Falls Church Police Chief Harry Reitze confirmed to the News-Press this week that the decision was not made by his department to empty student lockers and to order students at George Mason High School to leave their backpacks in the hallways of the school during a “lockdown” and search of the campus by drug-sniffing dogs and their handlers from the Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria Police Departments last month.

Chief Reitze said the decision was made by an official of the Falls Church Public Schools, although he could not be more specific.

School officials requested the search, he said, which required the importation of dogs from surrounding jurisdictions since the Falls Church Police K-9 Unit had been liquidated under pressure from budget cuts two years ago.

The controversy associated with the lockdown and search focused on whether or not the search of locker and backpack contents by the police and dogs went beyond a general sweep of the campus by drug-sniffing dogs to imperil the rights to privacy of students who were not identified as suspected of an illegal activity.

No one associated with the Falls Church School System has made a public comment on the matter, except for School Board member Patrick Riccards, who contributed seven posts on the Falls Church News-Press‘ website, FCNP.com, in a give-and-take with other citizens over the matter. It appeared that he’d been deployed on behalf of the entire School Board to articulate its position on the matter.

Contacted by the News-Press this week, School Board chair Joan Wodiska made no comment on the matter, except to call attention to the fact that at the School Board’s next business meeting on Tuesday, June 14, an public petition period will be provided for anyone who wishes to comment. She said that nothing is currently on the agenda for that meeting to discuss the subject.

Active commentary appeared on the FCNP.com and at least one other locally-based website in the past week, since the issue was called out by News-Press columnist Michael Gardner in last week’s edition.

The commentary has involved self-identified parents, students and citizens, many of whom use “handles” instead of real names, and none of whom can be guaranteed to be who they say they are without extensive investigations.

Riccards commented repeatedly that the “Falls Church City Public Schools has a very clear policy with regard to searches on school premises,” citing School Board Policy 9.57 that is posted on the FCCPS website, noting that policy is also “consistent with both Virginia and federal law.”

However, a citizen questioned whether the “school acted consistent with its own policy,” noting that Policy 9.57 stipulates that “a reasonable suspicion to believe a student has violated or is violating a law or a school rule” is a condition for justifying a search. He then contends that “if all students were searched, then this is a suspicion-less search.” Another wrote that the search operated on the principle that “all of the George Mason student body was considered guilty until proven innocent.”

“Are we saying that the officers suspected every kid in the school? I’m not a lawyer and don’t pretend to know the intricacies of the law, but I find this sort of search chilling,” one wrote.
While Riccards cited another section of formal school policy which states that “for a general search to be reasonable, the nature and immediacy of the school’s interests and the efficacy of the search in meeting those interests must outweigh the nature of the students’ privacy interests and the level of intrusion which the search produces.”

However, the section he quoted also includes the following: “The periodic general search does not include authority to search through student property, such as jackets, backpacks and purses located inside the locker,” and some on-line comments noted that explained why the order was given to students to empty lockers and place possessions in the hallways to permit a search.
Comments also extended to whether or not students aged 18 and up had their Miranda rights read to them, that “they might have been denied legal rights as adults,” or whether any students had been advised of their rights prior to the time of the search. It was also asked whether the students were told that they retained the right no to comply with the order to empty their lockers.
One comment noted that “dog sweeps of all kid property by police without individualized suspicion done without notice contrary to written policy applicable to all grade levels with no clear directions to kids and questioning done without parents” could involve “exposing ourselves to litigation because we want to do what we group-think other schools do.”

Another comment pertained to the consequences of “false positives,” when a dog marked a backpack, for example, and the student was brought before school officials without their parents included in the discussion, only to find that the dog was wrong.

On the other hand, many comments praised the handling of the entire incident, noting, for example, that “searches are necessary in today’s world.”

“Did the doggie patrol find anything?,” one commentator saying his children graduated from the F.C. school system a few years ago, asked, echoing the comments of a number who criticized the lack of hard information that justified the search, or that quantified the results.

Reference to a PRIDE survey of 2009 was cited by some as justification, but others noted that alcohol was tagged as a bigger problem than the synthetic drug, K-2, whose use on campus was presumed by many commenting to be the primary cause for the search. Others also pointed out that searching the campus would only compel students to engage in drug activity off campus, in the wider community.

One identified as a “Mason student” noted that “bringing dogs to school won’t do anything except encourage kids to do drugs somewhere else in Falls Church. It’s treating a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.”

“The one potentially problematic issue is whether ordering the kids to leave backpacks behind in the hallways to be subject to the dog sniff constituted a constitutionally-impermissible seizure of the backpack,” a citizen wrote.

Another wrote, “Not only do we talk to our children about drugs, but also that they are never, never, never ever to talk to police or school administrators without one of their parents being there, should they feel themselves in a difficult situation.”