by Beth Hutchinson
For the Pathfinder
November 27, 1997
A hefty agenda which led to a three hour and forty minute meeting faced the Seeley Lake Elementary School Board at its November 11th meeting. Paramount among the issues was the discussion and development of board policy regarding locker and desk searches and correlating policy regarding student privacy and searches of students and their property.
At the behest of Superintendent John Hebnes, Steve Johnson, owner of the California-based Canine Detective Service, made an extensive presentation regarding the services his company could offer the school. A seventeen year, veteran narcotics officer in the Bay Area, Johnson has contracts with nearly eighty school districts in the West.
"Does the community feel it may have a drug and alcohol problem?" queried Johnson. "That's where you have to start."
Putting into words the body language being expressed around the room, Board Member Jim Kyle remarked, "I think we generally feel there is a problem. We're just not sure how large."
Board chair Bart Peterson affirmed Kyle's perception saying that the concerns reached beyond the elementary school. "Yes, there's a problem. The high school needs to be included, too."
Johnson continued to explain that he and his associate Dan Bagey, formerly with the Billings Police Department, were private citizens. "We are not cops anymore. We don't carry guns, or mace or anything like that. What we do is work with a nice, loveable, black lab to serve as a deterrent."
"I'm licensed by the federal government to possess controlled substances for two purposes. I can have drugs to train dogs and I can take control of drugs once they are found. We work closely with law enforcement-- not to replace them. As private citizens, there are things we can do that they can't."
Reviewing the broad package his firm offers, Johnson said it starts with "creating a 'bullet-proof' policy to eliminate liability for the school and Steve Johnson. Once appropriate policy has been adopted, the school gets an assembly covering the whole process."
"We cover the law. We tell them that the dogs can find things as difficult as unopened beer and marajuana seeds as well as other controlled substances and drug paraphernalia. We show them how the dog works."
Johnson stressed, "We have developed a program that physically attracts kids. They like the dogs. There's no image of 'the MAN'. People will tell [us as] strangers the damdest things because they are looking for someone to help them. We invite the whole community."
"The last message I give them is...'I'm coming back. You just don't know when. This is a zero tolerance facility from this time forth."
He explained that the school is responsible for the consequences of any discoveries with one exception. "If a saleable amount is found. Then I must call law enforcement. Other things can be delt with in huse, but most schools utilize cooperation with the law."
Querried about right to privacy issues, Johnson replied that those legalities have been addressed from a safety/health perspective, a stance that holds up in court. "We can't just line kids up and search them, but the dogs can smell the residue of alcohol, drugs and black powder on things the kids may have touched many hours after."
When the dog locks onto odors, it locks on visually. If it has been pointing towards someone's locker or backpack, Johnson watches until the owner touches something else and then offers the dog the opportunity to sniff it. If the dog locks a second time, the Supreme Court has taken the position that school authorities, acting in loco parentis, can search every inanimate object the person has come in contact with and eventually search the person in the interests of a safe and healthy environment.
Once the assembly has been completed, at some point ranging from that afternoon to days later, Johnson and his dog will return without any further warning to search the entire school facility. If he's been working at another system in the area (such as Lincoln where he has a contract) he and his dog may stop by for a quick walk through. He wants to send the message that from a point shortly after the assembly is over, thereon it becomes unsafe for illegal substances to be in the school.
Extensive discussion followed Johnson's presentation with most questions addressing consequences. Peterson asked about the policies of other schools that turned students over to law enforcement. Board member Mark Williams asked about the role of counseling, while his colleague Charlee Parker asked if Johnson would help the board develop policy.
Trying to get a handle on costs, Kyle inquired whether "we can assess the problem here for $1000, more or less". Johnson answered "yes".
Hebnes asked how soon the services could be delivered if the board decided in favor of them. Johnson said he could be back as early as December 7th or 8th.
Suggesting his perception of board concensus, Kyle said, "I think we all think we have a problem and we should do something about it."
Peterson directed the board's attention to the three policies: Locker and Desk (remain property of school district...reserve right to inspect... periodically... reasonable belief of improper use...[no] contraband, [illegal or hazardous] substances...threat to health, safety or welfare...occupants...building), Student Privacy (respect student privacy...protect the health and safety of all students...authority to conduct student searches...reasonable belief...manner prescribed by district policy) and Searches of Students and Their Property (free from searches... unless... reasonable cause... immediate danger...[procedures]). The board unanimously approved their adoption. [You may see the complete policy documents in the school district office.]
Then the board authorized the expenditure of up to $1000 to hire Johnson to implement his services enough to assess the problem.
Other board business included meeting with grant writer George Humphries, updates on the playground committee and building progress (SLOW), meeting 8th grade teacher Royce Johnston, reviews of custodial needs and basketball coaching contracts and the plan for a regional, multi-board retreat/siminar. More on these items will be covered in next week's Pathfinder.