Police Sweep at Oceanside High Stirs Up Debate Over Student Rights
Thursday, December 11, 2014 4:41 AM
A police sweep at Oceanside High School East in Rockland last week has stirred up a passionate debate over how to balance the individual rights of students with "zero tolerance" drug policies.
(Illustration by Hanji Chang)
Principal Renee Thompson said that although there have not been any specific drug problems at the school, she organized the raid by the Rockland Police along with the Knox and Lincoln County Sheriff's Departments in an effort to "send the message that we have zero tolerance for drugs, tobacco and paraphernalia brought on school grounds." According to Rockland Police Detective Sergeant Chris Young, it's the first time in his 18 years on the force that such a search had been performed at the high school.
According to Thompson, teachers and staff were not notified of the search until the police arrived at about 9:20 a.m. on Thursday, December 4. At that time, an order was given over the school's intercom system for students to place all of their personal belongings - such as backpacks, laptop cases, purses and lunch boxes - in the middle of the hallway so police could run drug-sniffing dogs up and down the hall.
The school was then put in a temporary "hold-in-place," which means that all classroom doors were shut and students were not allowed to leave their classrooms or enter the school. Teachers were directed to continue their instruction as law enforcement officials moved through the school. When the K9s were done with the hallways, they proceeded out to the parking lot to sniff the students' cars and other belongings.
According to Thompson, if the dog catches the scent of an illegal substance on a backpack or vehicle, the student is then called down for a conversation before a search is performed.
"Some students are very honest and they tell us what they're going to find," said Thompson. "We then call the parents. We don't search until we let the parents know that we're going to search, and we give them the chance to be present when they search. We don't touch the children. We usually ask them to empty their pockets and take off their shoes. No one leaves class until we're done with the search."
If a student is found with a prohibited substance or paraphernalia, Thompson said that the police would typically issue a summons and the student would be suspended from school. However, according to Detective Sergeant Young, the 45-minute search only yielded one hit - tobacco in a student's backpack.
Presumed Guilty Until Proven Innocent?
While ordering the entire student body to dump all of their personal belongings in a pile for police to inspect is not a typical routine, police drug searches are not uncommon in schools in Maine. Last year, police and the administration of Camden Hills Regional High School also conducted a search with dogs, although students were not required to pile their belongings in the middle of the hall. Though random police searches have been ruled Constitutional by the courts and are explicitly allowed under RSU 13 policies, they remain controversial with civil liberties advocates.
"Schools are there for teaching and sometimes they teach by example," said ACLU of Maine Legal Director Zach Heiden. "This school has taught the students a terrible lesson: the government doesn't trust them, they are presumed guilty, and their rights don't matter. That is going to be a very hard lesson to unlearn."
At issue are the two legal concepts of "probable cause" and "reasonable suspicion." Under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures," a police officer must have probable cause to warrant a full search of an individual or his/her personal property. However, law enforcement only needs the more loosely defined standard of "reasonable suspicion" to stop you on the street and pat you down for weapons. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that administrators only need reasonable suspicion to search students.
"You have to know the reason why you're doing the search before you conduct the search, which may sound almost ridiculous, but that's what the Supreme Court has said," explained Heiden. "Not all searches in the school context are legal, but school administrators are allowed to conduct more searches than the police would be able to on the outside."
Under the law, lockers are considered school property and can be subject to random searches by building administrators with or without reasonable suspicion, notice or consent. But in order to search personal possessions like backpacks or automobiles parked on school property, RSU 13 policy dictates that administrators must have reasonable suspicion that "an individual possesses illegal goods or that there is a breach of school discipline.""Our policy states that any time a student is on our property we're able to search," said Principal Thompson. "Once they enter the school grounds they kind of lose their rights to their own personal property as far as their vehicles and their backpacks. And once we have reason ... we only will search the ones that the dogs hit on."
Thompson said that only the principal, assistant principal, or designated employees may conduct searches and may not perform any type of strip search. Typically, school officials will only request that students empty out their pockets and remove their shoes and outer clothing like jackets and hoodies. All searches must also be officially documented.
Heiden said that strip searches would almost always be illegal in schools unless it can be proven to be an "extremely compelling circumstance." In the 2009 case of Safford Unified School District v. Redding, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a strip search of a 13-year-old girl for ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendment because the school lacked reasons to suspect that the drugs either presented a danger or that they were concealed in the girl's underwear.
Other court cases have also made it easier to subject students to random drug tests, most commonly for students in extracurricular activities like sports or clubs. Thompson said that drug testing at Oceanside would be unlikely, although she has recommended the procedure in the past.
"I've called parents before and asked if they're willing to have their child drug-tested before they come back on the property," said Thompson. "But I can't do it unless I have the parents' support and usually the parents are just as concerned about their child as we are and they're in support of that."
Thompson was hired earlier this year to replace former Principal Tom Forti. After a 10-year teaching stint in Rumford, the Texas native served for five years as the principal at Ellsworth High School, where she told the Ellsworth American that her priority was discipline. Thompson noted that she had conducted similar police sweeps at Ellsworth before coming to Rockland.
The policy has raised concerns with RSU 13 school board member Carol Bachofner, who argues that police sweeps instill fear and suspicion of those in authority among students and is a distraction from teaching.
"My other question is were the teachers, staff and administrators made to put their belongings out into the hallway, because I think equal treatment is an issue here," said Bachofner. "If we're going to send the dogs through to sniff everybody's belongings, does that mean everyone's belongings or are we singling out students for some kind of reason."
While some parents and students condemned the incident on online social networking, Thompson said she had not personally heard any concerns from parents.
"I think that if anything, they're very supportive that we're being proactive," she said. "We're not invasive and all students have to comply. Usually parents are thankful."
RSU 13 School Board Chair Steve Roberts brushed off student civil liberties concerns.
"It just so happened that on Saturday as I was coming back off a cruise ship, standing in line waiting to go through customs, guess what they walked through my luggage with? [Dogs]. I didn't even give it a second thought," said Roberts. "As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, there's a compelling interest to know that you're not bringing drugs in. The same decision has been made in regard to high schools. We have a compelling reason to make sure that the place is safe there for the kids to come to school."
Bachofner has requested that the RSU 13 board discuss the drug-search policy, but Roberts said such a discussion of the topic would be unlikely at the board's next meeting, on Thursday, December 11.
Questionable Reliability of Drug Dogs
But aside from student privacy concerns, the ACLU has also pointed to numerous studies that have concluded that drug-sniffing dogs are not always as reliable as they're often touted to be. One 2011 analysis by the Chicago Tribune of three years of data from suburban departments found drug-sniffing dogs had a 56-percent error rate. In a 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, 18 police dogs and their handlers were placed in a room with no drugs or explosives. In order to pass the test, the dogs simply had to detect nothing. But out of 144 runs, that only happened 21 times, which amounted to an 85-percent failure rate. Nevertheless, as the Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Harris last year, the sniff of a trained and certified drug dog is sufficient to establish probable cause for routine vehicle searches under the 4th Amendment. Still, Heiden said it's up to the school board to decide whether it wants the practice to continue.
"The question of whether a search is legal should only be the starting point, not the end point of the discussion," said Heiden. "Just because something may be legal for a school official to do, doesn't mean that it's right. Even a search that is technically legal may undermine the school's educational mission."