Drug-Sniffing Dogs in Schools Make Every Student a Suspect

Monday, June 6, 2011
Photo of drug-sniffing dogs

Last month, a high school in southeastern Washington conducted a suspicionless drug search. Students were asked to leave their classroom so that a police officer with a “drug-detection dog” could check their backpacks for signs of drug possession. After the search, two students were singled out for a more invasive search and questioning. One had marijuana paraphernalia in his backpack; in the other, no signs of drugs or drug paraphernalia could be found. Good news for the second student—after the humiliating and anxiety-producing search was complete, he was permitted to go back to class.

We can all agree that drug use and abuse among high school students is a serious concern. And most would agree that high schools should take measures to foster a drug-free environment. So what is the problem with such searches that use “drug detection dogs” at school? Aren’t drug dogs just a tool to help the police target student drug suppliers? They won’t cause any harm to students who follow school rules, so no need for us to worry about them. Right?

Not exactly. There are a number of reasons we should be concerned about drug-sniffing dogs in schools, but one key problem is that they have not been very effective at targeting only drug possessors. Several studies have indicated that drug dogs are prone to false alerts, which then lead to unjustified searches. Records of drug-sniffing dogs in one Washington school district indicated that dogs were incorrect 85 percent of the times they alerted to a substance. A Chicago study of drug dogs used for roadside automobile searches shows a 56 percent error rate—increasing to 73 percent for Hispanic drivers. Even the most generous estimates suggest that drug dogs are reliable, at most, 70 percent of the time (and this figure takes into account the 26% of searches where no substances are actually found but the targeted person admits to prior drug contact).

Why such high false alert rates? While some people have expressed concern that drug-sniffing dogs are influenced by officers’ racial biases, there are more benign explanations for the dogs' inherent unreliability. For example, many drug-dog-and-officer teams may be poorly trained, dogs may be rewarded for alerting even when no substances are found, and police officers, who are often under pressure to show that costly drug-detection programs are working, may give dogs accidental cues.

Further, there is little or no evidence to support claims that these programs deter drug use, reduce drug-related crime, or increase perceptions of public safety. This means that the searches are not only costly to individuals who experience embarrassment, humiliation, or anger when they are searched based on a false alert. They are also costly to school districts. Maintaining a drug-dog program can cost a district between $12,000 and $36,000 every year. Given the severe budget cuts hitting  Washington public schools (which have led to the elimination of dropout-prevention assistance and other programs that aimed to reduce the achievement gap), the cost-effectiveness of programs that identify one or two students possessing trace amounts of marijuana at a handful of schools should be seriously questioned.

The drug dog programs also raise a serious constitutional concern. Do public school students give up all expectations of privacy when they enter school grounds? A number of court cases have made clear that they do not. In Kuehn v. Renton School District (1985), a precedent-setting ACLU case, the Washington Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional for public schools to search large groups of students without individualized suspicion of each person searched. A blanket search that treats every student as a suspect violates the “privacy clause” of the Washington Constitution, which provides that “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

More recently, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously found that a school district policy of suspicionless urine testing for students who participate in extracurricular athletics violates the Washington Constitution (York v. Wahkiakum, 2008). The cases make clear that our state constitution provides even broader protections for privacy than its federal counterpart.

In 2006, the Nine Mile Falls School District in eastern Washington recognized that its blanket use of drug-sniffing dogs may have similarly violated the “privacy clause.” It abandoned its drug dog program in response to a threatened lawsuit by the ACLU of Washington and the Center for Justice. We hope that other school districts in Washington will acknowledge that drug dog searches are a bad policy and do the same.