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Board Approves Use of Drug-Detection Dogs at Santa Barbara High Schools

Some members remain hesitant, however, to move forward without first detailing procedures to ensure a fair, random search process

Drug-sniffing dogs will randomly search the high school campuses of the Santa Barbara Unified School District next year in an effort to deter students from bringing drugs to school, the school board decided Tuesday night.

The board voted to pursue a contract with Interquest Detection Canines, a company that charges $410 per full-day visit and has dogs trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, alcoholic beverages, gunpowder and frequently abused medications.

The district next will work with Interquest to outline how the searches will be conducted randomly and how alerts on students and teachers will be handled.

The 2010-11 California Healthy Kids Survey indicates that about 14 percent of SBUSD high school students had either consumed alcohol or used marijuana or other illegal drugs on school property during the 30 days before taking the survey, and district statistics show there have been about 260 alcohol- and drug-related infractions every year for the past five years.

It’s not a new idea for the district, but it has never gained much public support until now. Parents and principals interviewed by Noozhawk in October were mostly positive, but many reserved judgment until more details came out.

The Dos Pueblos High School Charger Account’s reporters surveyed classmates on the subject and found overwhelming opposition, mostly because of cost and doubts about effectiveness.

Interquest uses Labrador and golden retrievers that are always leashed and alert handlers to the presence of substances by sitting down. Bishop Garcia Diego High School has contracted with the company for more than five years, and Head of School Paul Harrington said it has been a good preventive measure.

“It’s random and has been a priority for us to try to ensure we’re as drug-free as we can be,” he has told Noozhawk.

The Santa Barbara district would conduct similar searches, with students and teachers stepping out of classrooms as dogs sniff backpacks and other belongings. After an alert, the student in question would be taken to the office, though the exact procedure — and consequences — aren’t decided yet.

That was one of the board’s main concerns on Tuesday — moving forward without a detailed policy and search procedures.

Board members Monique Limon and Annette Cordero voted against implementing drug dogs because they don’t see the procedures in place to ensure a fair, random search process. They said it’s especially important that no student population is targeted, especially since the district’s discipline policies have been criticized as being subjective.

Statistics show a larger percentage of Latino students being expelled and suspended than white students, and the district decided to pursue a pilot program at a junior high school next year that uses a restorative justice discipline model. Cordero asked how the drug detection consequences would fit in with that new system.

“We’re going forward under a model of suspension and expulsion that might change dramatically,” she said. “I think we all hope it will change dramatically in the next several months.”

Limon said she didn’t believe the process would be truly random, and though the dogs could deter students from bringing drugs to campus, it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of children using drugs.

“As we heard on Jan. 17, there is nothing random about our discipline policies. I heard the word ‘subjective’ used multiple times,” she said. “I do not feel comfortable voting for a new tool given that the policy, the practice and the tool are not aligned.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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