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Nine Mile Falls School District Abandons Dog Searches

The Nine Mile Falls School District has decided to stop searching its junior high and high school students with drug-sniffing dogs. The decision avoided a planned lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) and the Center for Justice (CFJ). 

Many parents and students were upset when the District began bringing trained dogs on school grounds to sniff students' belongings for contraband, without any suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of individual students. ACLU and CFJ were poised to file a lawsuit on behalf of a student and parent. In a March 27 letter, the school district stated it will place a moratorium on future drug dog searches until a state or federal court determines their lawfulness.

“We are pleased that the district has chosen to respect its students," said Julya Hampton, ACLU Legal Program director. "The district’s blanket use of drug-sniffing dogs treats every student as a suspect, without suspicion or evidence that they have done anything wrong.”  

“We support the Nine Mile Falls District in their efforts to keep their schools drug-free. However, the use of drug-sniffing dogs is a costly and ineffective tool in this fight,” said John Sklut, CFJ staff attorney. “It is important that any searches at public schools be consistent with constitutional protections so that our students learn about the Constitution both in practice and in theory,” he added.

The Nine Mile Falls School District hired Interquest Detection Canines in January 2004, to use trained dogs to search for contraband at its schools. The company agreed to search the high school and middle school at least four times a year each, looking for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Asking dogs to identify so many different and unrelated items leads to a very low accuracy rate. Records from the first rounds of drug-sniffing dogs at the Nine Mile Falls district showed that the dogs were incorrect over 85 percent of the times that they alerted to a package.

During these searches, school administrators announced that the school was on a “level one lockdown,” and that all students were to sit quietly at their desks. The repeated calls for lockdowns desensitized the students, who no longer take the lockdown notices seriously. This was especially dangerous in December 2004, when a student entered the foyer of Lakeside High School with a gun and shot himself to death. Many students at the time ignored the announcement of a school lockdown, since it had been misused for random classroom searches.

Suspicionless searches violate the “privacy clause” of the Washington Constitution (Article I, Section 7), which provides that “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” In Kuehn v. Renton School District, an ACLU case, the Washington Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to search a student without individualized suspicion that he or she is breaking a law or school rule. In that case, officials at Hazen High School in Renton had sought to search a student’s luggage prior to a school band trip.

The Nine Mile Falls School District covers territory in both Spokane and Stevens counties, and is located north of the City of Spokane. Attorneys handling this matter are ACLU Staff Attorney Aaron Caplan and Center for Justice Staff Attorney John Sklut.