“Sniff Away Fido!” Assessing the Extent of Allowing Canine Searches of Students in Our Schools

The past few articles I’ve composed have highlighted various contexts in the realm of school searches of students and their possessions. Connecticut has codified the landmark decision of New Jersey v. T.L.O., incorporating the parameters of permissible school searches into § 54-33n: “justified at its inception” and “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”[1] Though it provides important definitions of terms in the applicable two-part reasonableness test, it does not specifically limit who or what may be searched and the manner of the search itself (thus the test).

Woof!

Switching gears without the clutch, in the United States, households nationwide own approximately 78.2 million pet dogs.[2] They have been near and dear to our hearts as “Man’s Best Friend,” and became increasingly loved every time Lassie saved Timmy – yet again – from that well. However… fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and they’ve become a vital tool utilized by local and federal law enforcement at shipping facilities, airports, security checkpoints, and… well, basically everywhere.

The use of dog-sniffing tactics is on the rise as schools attempt to combat drug abuse within its student body. “The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University completed a 2005 study concluding that [at that time] 2.4 million, or 28% of middle school students, and 10.6 million, or 62% of high school students, will attend schools where drugs are used, kept, or sold.”[3] These students are “three times likelier to have tried marijuana, three times likelier to get drunk in a typical month, and twice as likely to have tried alcohol, compared to teens who attend drug-free schools.”[4]

The Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. clarified that teachers are subject to constitutional restrictions on their searches of students, though not as stringent as those applied to law enforcement (see above, as codified in § 54-33n). Thus, the use of canines in conducting drug searches hinges on the reasonableness of the search. In practice, however, federal jurisdictions are producing conflicting (and irreconcilable) results about whether dog-sniffing constitutes a search at all[5] – a conflict which inevitably will find its way once more in front of the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, school districts are choosing to retain dogs in their arsenal of search weaponry to combat drug use and abuse – not without controversy amongst residents, either. Earlier this year, canine sweeps became routine at Simsbury High School: “the dogs will be brought through the hallways, bathrooms, common areas, lockers, locker rooms and parking lots while students remain in their classrooms,” according to Principal Neil Sullivan and Superintendent Diane Ullman.[6] This is but the latest measure employed by the school district as it faced increases in arrest rates related to marijuana possession and sales. However, it has received its seal of approval from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE): “It’s a policy available because a prime mission of a school is to provide safety to its students. This is just one of a number of ways to [do so],” says CABE senior staff associate Vincent Mustaro.[7]

The Amity Regional Board of Education, however, has decided to up the ante. As of early summer, it was “considering approving a policy that would allow police canines to sniff an individual student in cases where there is reasonable suspicion that individual is in violation of the law or school rules.”[8] If passed, Amity would become the first school district to implement such measures, though it has already become the target of sharp criticism from parents, the ACLU of Connecticut, and even CABE itself. “CABE’s position is not to sniff the person. I would not have a dog go up to a youngster. Our position is to use dogs to sniff inanimate objects, not persons,” explained Mustaro.[9] However, the State Department of Education declined to comment on the matter, noting it was a local issue. Some parents have supported the proposed action, with one notably writing on his Facebook wall, “Metal Detectors or Dogs. If they’re bringing in drugs into a school, it could be just as dangerous as a gun or a knife. Sniff away Fido!”[10]

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address the extent to which dog searches in schools are permissible, it is imperative, as a parent, that you understand your child’s rights by consulting an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding school searches or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] Connecticut General Statutes § 54-33n.

[2] “Pet Statistics,” by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.aspca.org/about-us/faq/pet-statistics.aspx

[3] “Suspicionless Canine Sniffs: Does the Fourth Amendment Prohibit Public Schools From Using Dogs to Search Without Individualized Suspicion?” by Todd Feinberg, UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy, Vol. 11:2, pp.273. Summer 2007. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://jjlp.law.ucdavis.edu/archives/vol-11-no-2/08%20Feinberg%2011.2.pdf

[4] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse X: Teens and Parents (2005). Accessed October 4, 2012: http://www.casacolumbia.org/Absolutenm/articlefiles/Teen_Survey_Report_2005.pdf

[5] Compare Doe v. Renfrow, 631 F.2d 91, 92 (7th Cir. 1980) (per curiam) (holding that canine sniffing ordered by school officials does not constitute a search) with B.C. v. Plumas Unified School District, No. 97-17287, 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 38863 (9th Cir. Sept. 20, 1999) and Horton v. Goose Creek Independent School District, 690 F.2d 470 (5th Cir. 1982) (holding that canine sniffing constitutes a search, thus implicating the Fourth Amendment).

[6] “Drug-Sniffing Dogs To Be Used In Drug Sweeps At Simsbury High School,” by Hillary Federico. Published February 16, 2012. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://articles.courant.com/2012-02-16/community/hc-simsbury-drug-dogs-20120214_1_dog-searches-drugs-on-school-grounds-illegal-drug

[7] Id.

[8] “Amity considers allowing drug-sniffing dogs to check students,” by Bridget Albert. Published June 2, 2012. Accessed October 4, 2012: http://nhregister.com/articles/2012/06/02/news/metro/doc4fcadb8e5d32f364581634.txt

[9] Id.

[10] Id.