Tag Archive | "drug-sniffing dogs"

Call to Nix the Dogs

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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.

What Will We Gain From Drug-Sniffing Dogs?

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By Susan Lamontagne

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America offers some excellent tools and tips for parents on how to help your teenager stay away from drugs. Putting our kids in “lock-down” and bringing drug-sniffing dogs into their schools is not among them.

The use of drug-sniffing dogs in schools has been on the rise in recent years, sniffing in school districts from Long Island to Washington State. “After numerous searches during the last five years,” says the superintendent of Connecticut’s Southington School District in the New York Times, “the dogs have not led authorities to any illegal narcotics.” Meanwhile, marijuana and prescription drug abuse among teens are on the rise nationwide.

After a survey of students on the East End indicated high rates of drug use, Sag Harbor’s Board of Education voted unanimously to allow drug-sniffing dogs into Pierson. But the real problem might actually be the survey itself. Students were asked “if students are using drugs” – not how many students or how often. Since the questions were vague, for all we know, the survey respondents were talking about the same six kids. But this policy’s reliance on faulty data is not the point.

ACLU chapters from New York to Washington argue that there is “little to no evidence to support claims that [drug-sniffing dog] programs deter drug use, reduce drug-related crime, or increase perceptions of public safety.” What they do provide, perhaps, is a false sense of security and a hostile learning environment.

Members of Sag Harbor’s Board of Education and the school superintendent are quoted as saying that the purpose of these dogs is to “get students into counseling.” The actual policy they approved states that police will be standing by to make an arrest. Whenever there is a disconnect between what policy makers say and what the actual policy states, there is reason to be concerned.

The fact is we don’t need dogs to get students into counseling. School officials already have the legal right to search student lockers. They already have the authority to act on suspicions. What they don’t have the right to do is turn every student into a suspect just for walking into school.

What can be done? According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the first year of middle school — or age 13 — is the year children are most at risk for starting to use drugs. Boredom is a major risk factor and inhalants such as paint thinners, household cleaners, magic markers, etc. are the preferred substance. The dogs don’t sniff for these. Even they know how bad this stuff is for your brain. After inhalants, children and teens turn to alcohol and prescription drugs. The dogs won’t be sniffing for these either.

Drug prevention experts recommend that parents start talking with their kids about drugs and alcohol long before they are teenagers – starting as early as kindergarten – and keep those conversations going with “teachable moments.” Michael Jackson’s death, Amy Winehouse’s, and now in all likelihood Whitney Houston’s are a few examples. When you talk about it often enough, your child will get the message: “There goes another celebrity making a dumb decision to do drugs.” Once your child turns 13, experts say, you should assume that he or she has been offered drugs. Engaging in role play when your child is younger can help prepare him or her to handle those sticky scenarios.

On Facebook’s Sag Harbor Parents Connect, there has been a somewhat heated debate about whether drug-sniffing dogs are a good idea. Most parents have weighed in for it, believing that this approach will root out the users and if a child is innocent, there is no need to worry. Yet innocent students are very much at risk if someone plants drugs in their lockers — not an inconceivable scenario. And both innocent and not-so-innocent students may be arrested. Let’s face it. We can probably find more adults who dabbled with drugs as teenagers and later thrived than we can young people who were dragged through the juvenile justice system and came out okay.

Drug-sniffing dogs are on their way to Pierson, but this highly questionable tactic does not eliminate the need for all of us to do the proactive work it takes to prevent drug abuse. Parents need to educate themselves about the signs of drug use, maintain an early and open dialogue with our kids about drugs, and make sure that our community offers plenty of healthy risks that teenagers can engage in.

Are we doing enough? Apparently not. Will drug-sniffing dogs solve the problem? So far, the weight of the evidence says no.

Some Say “No” To Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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By Claire Walla

For some parents and community members, measures the Sag Harbor School District is taking to combat the use of drugs and alcohol among students is aggressive — too aggressive.

“Do we want our middle and high school building to mimic a prison?” parent Marianna Levine asked school board members at a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

Levine said she shared her perspective with several other parents of children in the Sag Harbor School District who strongly oppose the use of drug-sniffing dogs on campus. She argues that bringing in a police K-9 unit would essentially create a dynamic similar to a “totalitarian state” where students are stripped of their rights.

Community member Leah Oppenheimer also expressed her concerns with bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus.

“I’m really worried about the link of trust between the children and [the administration],” she said. “Dogs don’t have a good reputation. They really signify something scary, even if the intent behind it is good.”

Elementary school parent Lawrence LaRose agreed.

“This is going to erode the bond that this school has with its students,” he said.

And by forcing all students to stay in classrooms during a sniff search based on evidence that some students have been found in possession of drugs, LaRose further contended, “You’re putting that suspicion on all students.”

Levine took particular issue with the notion that the school would go into what it called a “lock-down” scenario at the time of the so-called drug sniff.

“That’s a prison term,” she said.

During the course of the meeting, several board members expressed a keen interest in changing the terminology for the school’s lock-down procedure so that it would be referred to as a “safety check” instead, as Levine suggested.

However, Dr. John Gratto, the district’s superintendent, said the board disagreed with some of Levine’s comments.

“We certainly don’t think you’re correct in saying it would engender a police state,” he stated. “We have, as a basic philosophy, a desire to build relationships with students. Some of you have characterized this as an either/or issue; I don’t think it is. We’ll still continue to build relationships with students, [drug-sniffing dogs] are just another deterrent to keep kids free of drugs and alcohol.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller added, “Where this conversation came from and why we got here today was never about putative measures.”

She said that based on survey results conducted by an organization called OASIS, the board has determined that the use of drugs and alcohol among students needs to decrease.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” she continued. “This is something that’s always on the table here.”

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols added to that by explaining he is currently working to finalize a community coalition to prevent substance abuse. It’s made up of people from 12 different constituents from the community, including parents, teachers, police officers, doctors and even students.

“The goal of the coalition would be to look at what we’re doing comprehensively to lessen the likelihood that students would engage in drugs and drinking,” Nichols said. “Hopefully, we can address this in a way that involves different parts of the community to get different perspectives on the issue.”

Levine said she was pleased to hear that the school would be working to counsel students who may be found in possession of drugs as a consequence of drug-sniffing dogs on campus, and encouraged by the start of the coalition Nichols is putting together.

“I do appreciate that they’ve started the conversation on this,” she said. “And I have some hope that maybe the community coalition will come up with some better counseling solutions.”

However, she said she is still adamantly opposed to having drug-sniffing police units on campus.

“I just believe that the energy they’ve put into the dogs can be better spent looking into counseling programs,” she said.

“I think alcohol is the big problem at the school,” she continued. “And I don’t think the dogs are going to help with that.”

Board Looks at Logistics of Bringing in Drug-Sniffing

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Heller_SCPD at Sag School Board Mtg 1-23-12_0241

By Claire Walla

Inspector Stuart Cameron held all the attention in the room. Standing straight and tall in a navy blue uniform adorned with a bright badge, which stood out against the rows of young adult novels that are usually the focal point in the Pierson Middle/High School library, Cameron faced the Sag Harbor Board of Education and proceeded to talk about drug-sniffing dogs.

As commander of the Suffolk County Police Department’s special control bureau, Cameron said he recently initiated the effort to bring drug-sniffing dogs into schools across Suffolk County. The Suffolk County K-9 unit has to date visited seven different school districts, two of them this year, he said, although “neither resulted in an arrest.”

Cameron was asked to give a presentation on the Suffolk County K-9 unit at Monday’s school board meeting, January 23, in anticipation of the Sag Harbor School District taking proactive measures to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the middle/high school campus sometime this year.

Cameron explained that the police dogs are trained to detect several illegal substances, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crack.

“Because of the insurgence of heroin [in Suffolk County], we thought it would be appropriate to use them in schools,” he said of the dogs.

School board members note that heroine is not part of the problem they’ve noticed at Pierson, but marijuana is.

Cameron continued by explaining how the drug-sniffing procedure would work.

“We came up with a program that’s very conservative,” he began.

Working in conjunction with Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano, who will be the local law enforcement liaison, Suffolk County police would conduct a “non-targeted sniff,” as opposed to a full-blown search. In the instance of such a “sniff,” Cameron said, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto and Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols would be asked to identify a general area where there are student lockers, which the K-9 unit would explore.

Cameron asked that the administrators also identify the beginning of a class period when the dogs could be brought on campus. In this way, all students would be asked to remain in their classrooms during the course of the “sniff.” The procedure, as it’s currently laid out, would prevent dogs from actively sniffing-out any drugs potentially located in classrooms — either in students’ backpacks or carried on their person.

“At this time, [the program] is solely geared toward lockers and school facilities,” Cameron said. “Our goal is to provide a service, not to interfere with school operations.”

Also, before Suffolk County Police would bring dogs onto the Pierson campus, Cameron said he would require the district to send a letter to all parents that explains the drug-sniffing procedure, as well as the district’s policy on the matter. Included in this letter would be legal explanations of what a “sniff” fully entails, as well as a clear explanation of the district’s regulation over student lockers.

According to Cameron, “the scope of the letter [sent to parents] should include the fact that the school owns all locks and lockers, and that lockers can be subject to search without advanced knowledge.”

It should also be made clear, he said, that students are not permitted to share their lockers with other students, because ultimately “they are solely responsible for whatever’s inside.”

When asked whether he felt teachers would have enough knowledge of police procedures before a potential “sniff” were to take place, Nichols explained that all teachers have already been trained in how to conduct their classrooms during lock-down — and this scenario would not be much different.

According to Dr. Gratto, at the start of the class period during which the dogs will be brought on campus, Nichols would get on the P.A. system and require that everyone stay in classrooms until further notice.

“The announcement that would be made is that we’re going into lock-down,” Nichols added.

In the end, Dr. Gratto noted, this would be a precautionary measure meant to deter students from bringing illegal substances on campus. But, should any student be found to be in possession of any drugs, he said the school would first report the incident to police. (Chief Fabiano would be on-hand to make any potential arrests.)

“But, our interest is in having a save environment,” Dr. Gratto continued. “That student would be strongly encouraged to attend counseling. That would be a major component of what we do.”

Sag Harbor School Board members unanimously approved the first reading of the school’s new policy on drug-sniffing dogs. The second and final reading will be on February 9.

Pierson May Bring On the Dogs

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By Claire Walla

Before the end of this school year, it’s quite possible the Sag Harbor School District will bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus.

“For years I was hesitant to pursue this angle, but I’m more inclined to do this now,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, who took a hard-lined stance against bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus as recently as last fall. “I don’t want to say there are more incidents than in the past, though there have already been a few incidents this year,” he explained.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police Officer Paul Fabiano, there has only been one reported incident of marijuana possession on the Pierson campus since September 2011. The event involved a 14-year-old student. However, Fabiano said not all campus incidents get reported.

Nichols continued, “I know the harm [in bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus] is in saying to the students that we don’t trust them; but, making sure drugs are not on this campus outweighs the trust factor.”

All board members, including those who were previously on the fence on the issue, seemed to support the notion of bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus. And school superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, introduced a school policy on the topic.

According to a draft of the policy read at a school board meeting on Monday, “The Superintendent of Schools is authorized by the Board of Education to utilize dogs, which are trained to detect illegal drugs. The superintendent and high school principal are designated as the contact persons and they will determine if, and when, and how often a police agency’s ‘drug dogs’ will be called to school property.”

What’s more, the presence of drug-sniffing dogs would not be announced prior to their arrival. And the policy goes on to say that the dogs would be active on the campus while students were in classrooms, and the dogs would not be permitted to “sniff search” the students themselves.

While board member Water Wilcoxen pointed out that it’s within both Nichols’ and Dr. Gratto’s power to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus without a formal vote from the board and without an official policy, Nichols indicated that he wanted to make certain he had the full backing from the board and the superintendent before proceeding with any plans.

“This is a big step,” said Nichols. “I would not want to move forward with this unless I knew that the superintendent and the board were ok with it.”

Part of the supporting materials behind the motivation to crack down on substance abuse in the district includes results from the Sag Harbor School District Survey which was administered earlier this school year to students, parents and teachers.

According to those results, 71 percent of Pierson students agreed with the statement: “Students in my school use drugs and alcohol.” And 39 percent of those who responded said they had witnessed students consuming alcohol and/or using drugs on school grounds.

Overall, 57 percent of Pierson students either agreed or strongly agreed that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for students in the Sag Harbor School District. But, that figure rose to 69 percent when it came to the teachers’ responses to that same question.

Dr. Gratto and various board members referred to the survey to further illustrate the problems with substance abuse that have found their way to Pierson, but Dr. Gratto was careful to note that the survey results are not perfect and do not necessarily reflect the community as a whole. (To their credit, he said, 87 percent of all students actually took the poll, but only 23 percent of teachers and TAs responded.)

Teacher Peter Solow cautioned the school against following through with actions based on results culled from these surveys, which he called “imperfect instruments.”

“I’m not denying there’s an issue here,” he declared. “But I don’t think any policy should be based on inaccurate or anecdotal information. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s relatively serious. And I don’t know about the drug-sniffing dog thing, but that’s got to be a little piece of a bigger comprehensive plan.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller told Solow that the school district already has a comprehensive plan to address issues of alcohol abuse and prevention.

“It’s working, but it’s not working to the degree any of us are comfortable with,” she explained. “There’s still a problem. How many more times do we have to catch kids before we solve it?

“We need to look into bringing in a parent seminar immediately,” Miller continued. “That has to be done almost twice a year. I know these things cost money, but we should try to come back with a game plan.”

According to Nichols, the school needs a multi-pronged approach that is not limited to drug-sniffing dogs. In addition to taking a serious approach to eliminating substance abuse on campus, Nichols echoed Miller’s sentiments and mentioned that preventative measures must move beyond the classroom, even beyond the walls of the school.

“We have kids for seven hours out of a 24-hour day,” he began, alluding to the fact that students often develop habits and behaviors at home, or else off school grounds. “There are instances that are indigenous to our community.”

“We’re a resort community and we have some specific challenges,” he added.

Namely, Nichols said, the presence and availability of both alcohol and drugs are prevalent.

Wilcoxen agreed, and added that education needs to involve parents, as well as students. “You tell your child not to drink alcohol and drive, but how many parents get in the car after drinking, and their kids see them? It’s the same thing with dope. How are we going to reach out and help this? All I know is we haven’t done a very good job.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said she was in favor of utilizing drug-sniffing dogs when she previously served on the board five years ago. But now, especially with backing from Nichols who had previously been a staunch opponent, she said it’s imperative.

With a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old son, Kruel went on to say that she’s often privy to information about parties where there is underage drinking.

“I myself have gone to the police station to get the cops to help close down parties,” she said. “We have a problem. And if it takes this to help stop it, I say get the dog treats ready.”