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Use of drug-sniffing dogs draws board scrutiny

A long-standing policy of using drug-sniffing dogs to detect illegal narcotics and other banned items was questioned by some Burbank Unified school board members during a meeting Tuesday, with concerns expressed about the need for them.

Tom Kissinger, assistant superintendent of instructional services, and Johanna Chase, the district's wellness director, gave a presentation in which they explained the background and reasoning behind the use of canines, while providing three years' worth of statistics.

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"I think it's important to note that the primary purpose of this is not to try to catch students using or having drugs, but really to discourage them from bringing drugs to campus," Kissinger said.

For over 15 years, the district has hired contractors to conduct searches on school campuses, looking for illegal substances.

La Crescenta-based Impact Canine Solutions, which is licensed and registered by the U.S. Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency, currently has a contract with the district. The terms of the contract provide for 30 days of searches at a cost of $11,400 a year, which comes directly from the district's General Fund.

Searches are unannounced and typically take place in communal areas such as locker rooms, hallways and parking lots and there is always a district administrator present. Students are instructed to leave the area before an inspection gets underway.

Should a dog come across something suspicious, the inspector will then ask the student to witness a search of their personal item. If a dog indicates an alert on a vehicle, the driver will be asked to unlock it.

Impact Canine Solutions lists on its website that its dogs have been trained to detect marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, alcoholic beverages, firearms, gunpowder-based items and commonly abused medications.

There have been 36 inspections throughout the district during the 2017-18 school year, with several alerts.

Burroughs High had eight inspections that resulted in 18 alerts, but nothing illegal was found. Each of the alerts was linked to a backpack odor, but ultimately no drugs.

That statistic concerned board president Steve Ferguson as to why there were so many alerts, but no actual drugs.

"We have now legalized cannabis in this state and it appears that most of the signals that have been sent or most of the scents that are being shown here are on the smell of... residual of after usage and, again, it could be medicinal or it could be a parent using it," Ferguson said. "We're now paying thousands of dollars to have dogs sit on those… That concerns me, and I wonder if resources can be allocated elsewhere more appropriately."

Overall, Muir, Luther Burbank and Jordan middle schools have had at least one visit this school year along with Burbank, Burroughs and Monterey highs and Magnolia Park School and New Vista, which is an alternative placement program for students.

Those 36 visits have resulted in 82 alerts, though very few substantial finds.

Trace elements of marijuana were found during a visit at Burbank High and a marijuana cookie were confiscated during a search at New Vista.

Outside of the relatively few items found during inspections, another issue that troubled some board members was the inconsistency of the searches.

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During the 2016-17 school year, for instance, there were 36 visits, but none made to Burroughs High and only one at Burbank High. In contrast, New Vista tallied 11 inspections, while Luther Burbank had 10.

Board member Steve Frinter said he wondered what the protocol was for selecting which schools would be inspected and which wouldn't.

"I'm not sure why there wasn't a visit of Burroughs or why there was a choice not to visit Burroughs," Kissinger said.

Board member Roberta Reynolds also found the statistical data was lacking at least one key element.

"The purpose you have stated is to discourage students from bringing drugs on campus, but in terms of outcomes, would it fair to say that maybe the bigger picture and purpose would be to hope that we could reduce the number of incidents of students using drugs on campus and not just not bringing them?" Roberts said. "So it would be interesting to synthesis your data here in those same years [to see] how many events did we have in those years and compare to what we found and is there any type of trend there?"

Chase said she would review the data and report back soon to the board for further discussion.

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