By David McCabe
If the crowd that showed up at the Sag Harbor School Board’s special session on Monday is to be believed, the board has thrown the students of Pierson High school to the dogs.
At a meeting otherwise expected to be short and devoted mostly to personnel matters, the public input portion of the session was dominated by critics of the board’s decision to allow drug-sniffing dogs into the halls of the Pierson High School and Middle School building.
The most vocal in his opposition was former Pierson principal Bob Schneider, who stood and read a letter he said he had prepared for publication in the Express, but had not sent. He said at the beginning of his remarks that he had hoped that the board’s approval of the dogs policy would not actually result in searches being conducted.
“I naively assumed that the dogs would not come,” he said, “but they did come.”
His primary objection, he said, was that he did not believe the board had considered drug prevention research that indicates that drug-sniffing dogs do not prevent students from using illegal drugs.
“What was missing from consideration by the district was the evidence of what works to prevent drug use in schools,” he said. There is “not a shred” of evidence to suggest that using dogs would help curb drug use at the school, he claimed.
He also said he had sent pertinent research to board members, and accused them of not paying attention to important studies in the field of drug prevention.
Walter Wilcoxen, a board member and former board president, shot back that he had read the research that Schneider had sent and said he believed that its findings were consistent with the board’s decision.
“One of the points in that monograph, and this is just a small point, is that one of the first things you can do is ensure that the rules are enforced,” he said, going on to say that the dogs were a form of enforcement.
While other board members defended their decision, some also admitted they had not been proactive enough on the issue of drug prevention.
“We need an approach that goes beyond these walls. It has taken too long for this approach to get steam,” board member Chris Tice said. However, she questioned why it had taken so long for the administration to organize a meeting of community members to discuss the topic of drug prevention.
Mary Anne Miller, the president of the board, said that coordinating the meeting, which would involve a facilitator from an outside group, had proved difficult but that she hoped it would occur soon. The meeting has already been cancelled once, because the facilitator was ill.
Schneider was not the only person present at the meeting who voiced an objection to the fact that the dogs, which are provided by Suffolk County free of charge to the district, were brought into Pierson on June 7.
One audience member, Leah Oppenheimer, said she had been a working social worker servicing those hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She said that when dealing with those who were drug users, measures that degraded the trust between the patients and social workers were always detrimental to the former group. She also said that students with substance dependence are likely to find a way to obtain and use illegal drugs unless they receive counseling in school.
“They’ll go elsewhere, which is where you have no influence,” she said.
A student, Nick Dwoskin, also voiced his opposition to the policy, saying it fostered distrust between school administrators and students.
“As a deterrence it made sense,” he said “I don’t think it stops them from doing it anywhere else.”
Many present at the meeting called on the board to vote to suspend the policy until it can be reconsidered, but some board members seemed hesitant to take such a step, especially considering that the dogs will not be brought back into the school until school resumes in September.
Board members agreed to address the topic at their annual goal-setting meeting, which is being held this coming Monday, July 2, as part of a larger discussion of the district’s year-old wellness policy.