South Dakota School Officials Terrorized Kindergarten Classes with Drug-Sniffing Dogs, ACLU Charges

July 25, 2002 12:00 am

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SIOUX FALLS, SD–The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of 17 Native American students – some as young as six years old – who were terrorized when public school officials and law enforcement officers brought in a German Shepherd to conduct a suspicionless drug sweep of all K-12 classrooms.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Jonathan Heth, 2nd grade

“”What this school administration allowed is truly shocking,”” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project and lead counsel in the case. “”Officials at this school, along with law enforcement officers, seem to be pioneering a practice of treating even the youngest students like hardened criminals.””

The case, Shenona Banks et al. v. Wagner School Board, is being filed on behalf of 17 Native American students who attend the Wagner Community School in rural Wagner, located near the Yankton Sioux Reservation, two-and-a-half hours west of Sioux Falls.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order barring the school and law enforcement officials from any further dog searches when school begins on August 20.

While drug-sniffing dogs have been used in recent years to search classrooms, Boyd said this appears to be the first reported incident of drug-sniffing dogs being used directly on elementary school children.

“”As schools look for legitimate ways to address drug and alcohol abuse, we need to be vigilant against the war on drugs becoming a war on our youngest children,”” said Boyd. “”This incident could only occur in an environment that places the war on drugs over common sense.””

According to the ACLU complaint, on two separate days in May a number of local and federal law enforcement officers led a large German Shepherd police dog through the classrooms after the principal announced a “”lockdown”” over the loudspeaker. A school official who accompanied the police instructed the students to put their hands on their desks and avoid petting or looking at the dog or making any sudden movements. In some classrooms, a school official told students that any sudden movement could cause the dog to attack.

In at least one instance, the ACLU complaint said, the dog escaped its leash in a kindergarten class and chased students around the room. Some students had been traumatized by previous dog attacks and one young girl still has the scars of a previous attack on her face. Many began crying and trembling and at least one urinated involuntarily.

“”German Shepherds are commonly used by police to attack and apprehend dangerous criminal suspects,”” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the Dakotas chapter of the ACLU. “”The very notion of there being a drug problem in the kindergarten is ludicrous.””

Parents of the students named in the lawsuit said that Wagner, with a population of less than 1,700, is a hotbed of racial tensions between Native Americans and whites. Although Native Americans make up 40 percent of the school district’s population, none serve on the Wagner School Board.

The school board approved the suspicionless search and is listed as a defendant along with the Wagner Chief of Police and an official with the Indian Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The ACLU complaint further charged that the containment of children within their classrooms for several hours and the subsequent police dog sniff of those students constitutes an “”unreasonable search and seizure”” and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an identical provision of the South Dakota constitution.

James Leach of Rapid City is serving as ACLU cooperating attorney in this case.

The complaint filed in this case is online at

Student drawings of the incident can be viewed on the ACLU website at banks_pic and zephier_pic.

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