Nearly all Surrey's current school trustees say they'd support the use of drug-sniffing dogs in local schools as a potential strategy to ferret out students possessing and possibly dealing illegal drugs.

The use of such initiatives has received mixed reviews in other areas.

Abbotsford School District has allowed anti-drug canines into schools for several years. School board chair John Smith conceded the idea was controversial, facing harsh resistance from civil libertarians, but has "certainly never" become a legal issue.

"The board takes the position that kids deserve to have a safe school... it's appropriate to take whatever legal steps are necessary to rid schools of illegal drugs," Smith said, adding he fully supports the Surrey board's move. "It's not just a legal right but, I would suggest, a moral right."

Officials in Washington state also began using dogs in schools last month. Parents were invited to information meetings prior to any inspections and they voiced little opposition to the program.

Similar dog-sniffing initiatives have also been used in California, Michigan and Texas, with districts in those states reporting a significant reduction in the amount of drugs seized.

Civil libertarians across the border reported students as resentful when dogs were brought in, saying it was an invasion of privacy. Here, the Canadian Charter of Rights states that "everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure." While the police are restricted in what circumstances they can perform a search -- during a lawful arrest, with a search warrant or with consent -- permission is not required when a search is performed by a teacher or principal.

According to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, school authorities are responsible for student safety while in school and can demand a search. As well, lockers are owned by the schools, which means with reasonable grounds, they can be searched by principals.

The BCCLA's Murray Mollard told The Leader he's concerned the proposal will lead to cases where those caught with even minor amounts of drugs will be prosecuted.

A case in Ottawa last spring saw a teenaged boy suspended when a dog smelled marijuana on his jacket, though he had no drugs in his possession. He argued his rights had been violated and threatened legal action if the local school board didn't apologize. Local trustees maintain kids have the right to learn in a safe environment and say the drug-dog idea has to be explored.

"Schools are a place of learning -- who knows how the drug problem contributes to other issues like bullying and fighting," maintains Trustee Shawn Wilson.

Trustee Heather Stilwell, the school board representative on the city's drug-crime task force, said the use of dogs is one of several options to address drug abuse in its early stages. Because the RCMP would require probable cause to perform searches, a private Port Coquitlam firm is being considered for use in Surrey.

A district survey of nearly 14,000 Surrey secondary students done in 2000 showed that nearly half of respondents identified drugs as a "somewhat or very serious" issue. Drugs rated slightly above other concerns such as bullying, fighting, and overcrowding.

All the trustees in support of the concept indicated the go-ahead would be contingent on ensuring proper protocol and procedure were met. District staff is still examining the legalities of the proposed searches and the idea is being described as "very preliminary."

Board chair Mary Polak said sufficient policy for implementation is essential. She indicated that a consistent message arising from student forums held in Surrey has been that there's a belief people will never be caught.

"There isn't any proactive enforcement," Polak said, explaining drug use is dealt with the same as any other illegal activities with police being called and suspensions given out. "That's a reactive response...this ( the dogs ) is moving into a more proactive idea."

Pubdate: Fri, 01 Nov 2002
Source: Surrey Leader (CN BC)
Copyright: 2002 Surrey Leader