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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.