Nine Mile Falls School District Abandons Drug-Sniffing Dog Searches

March 30, 2006 12:00 am

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March 30, 2006

ACLU of Washington and Center for Justice Applaud Decision
SPOKANE, WA — In response to a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Center for Justice, the Nine Mile Falls School District has stopped using drug-sniffing dogs to search its middle and high school students.

“We are pleased that the district has chosen to respect its students,” said Julya Hampton, the ACLU of Washington’s Legal Program Director. “The district’s blanket use of drug-sniffing dogs treats every student as a suspect, without suspicion or evidence that they have done anything wrong.”

Many parents and students were upset when the district, which is located north of Spokane in eastern Washington, began bringing trained dogs on school grounds to sniff students’ belongings for contraband, without any suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of individual students. The ACLU and the Center for Justice, a local nonprofit that provides free legal services, were poised to file a lawsuit on behalf of a student and parent when they received a letter on March 27 in which the school district stated that it will place a moratorium on future drug dog searches until a state or federal court determines their lawfulness.

“We support the Nine Mile Falls District in their efforts to keep their schools drug-free. However, the use of drug-sniffing dogs is a costly and ineffective tool in this fight,” said John Sklut, a CFJ staff attorney. “It is important that any searches at public schools be consistent with constitutional protections so that our students learn about the Constitution both in practice and in theory.”

The school district hired Interquest Detection Canines in January 2004 to use trained dogs to search for contraband at its schools. The company agreed to search the high school and middle school at least four times a year each, looking for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Asking dogs to identify so many different and unrelated items leads to a very low accuracy rate according to the ACLU. Records from the first rounds of drug-sniffing dogs at the Nine Mile Falls district showed that the dogs were incorrect more than 85 percent of the times that they “alerted” to a substance.

While the searches were being conducted, school administrators announced that the school was on a “level one lockdown,” and that all students were to sit quietly at their desks. Repeated calls for lockdowns have desensitized the students, who no longer take the notices seriously. This was especially dangerous in December 2004, when a student entered the foyer of Lakeside High School with a gun and shot himself to death. Many students at the time ignored the announcement of a school lockdown, since it had been misused for random classroom searches, the ACLU said.

The planned lawsuit would have challenged suspicionless searches as a violation of the “privacy clause” of the Washington Constitution, which provides that “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” In Kuehn v. Renton School District, an ACLU case, the Washington Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to search a student without individualized suspicion that he or she is breaking a law or school rule. In that case, school officials had sought to search a student’s luggage prior to a school band trip.

Attorneys handling this matter are ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan and Center for Justice staff attorney John Sklut. The Center for Justice is a nonprofit law firm based in Spokane dedicated to providing services for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. It handles cases concerning civil rights, democracy/government and institutional accountability and regional ecosystem health.

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