In a move believed to be the first of its kind in Orange County, Huntington Beach Union High School District is considering having police dogs sniff student lockers and cars for drugs while students are in classes.
The proposed searches would be in all the public high schools in Huntington Beach, Westminster and Fountain Valley.
“It’s not designed to catch people with drugs in lockers,” said Huntington Beach Police Lt. Charles R. Poe. “It’s designed to deter people from bringing them. It’s a deterrent program. That’s the real thrust.” Poe acknowledged, however, that there would be prosecution of students caught in possession of drugs.
The board of the 14,000-student high school district is scheduled to consider the police dog proposal at its April 13 meeting.
If the school board approves, a team of uniformed police officers, a county probation officer and four drug-sniffing dogs will begin randomly patrolling seven high school campuses in May, Poe said.
The proposal differs from the use of police dogs last fall in the Orange Unified School District to sniff for drugs on school buses. An outcry erupted over that plan because the dogs brushed up against some of the students.
The proposal in the Huntington Beach district would forbid contact between police dogs and students. Bonnie Castrey, a school board member, said, “Our concern is that this be an unobtrusive kind of process--something that is not personally invasive such as with direct contact with police dogs.”
Castrey, in an interview Tuesday, said that so far the proposal has met no opposition.
“The feeling so far is that this would be one more tool to serve as a deterrent against drugs on campus,” Castrey said. “I think the parents will be behind this as another way to provide safety in the school environment.”
District Supt. David Hagen stressed that the proposal did not stem from any increase in violence or drugs.
“We haven’t had a big increase in problems,” Hagen said. “Actually, this proposal would just be another way to deter drug use.”
Hagen said the police dogs would sniff all cars parked on school grounds, as well as student lockers.
Police in the three cities that compose the sprawling high school district have been coordinating the plan to check lockers and cars. The Orange County district attorney’s office has advised police that the proposed plan would be constitutional.
Kathleen Harper, who is in charge of the district attorney’s legal department, said Tuesday that her research found that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have allowed more leeway for searches on school grounds. She said the district attorney’s office did not offer an opinion on the advisability of the program, only on its legality. “We advised that this proposal appears to be constitutionally valid,” she said.
Sandy Landry, an administrator with the Orange County Department of Education, said: “I can say (the proposed police dog plan) is pretty novel. I don’t know of any district in Orange County that is doing that type of thing.”
Officials in Huntington Beach said the proposed plan there would not involve school bus searches, such as the controversial ones in Orange Unified last fall.
Beginning last Oct. 30, police in Orange made random searches of school buses with drug-sniffing dogs. The mayor and several members of the Orange City Council complained in December that they had not been informed of the police plan. Some parents and students also criticized the use of police dogs, but the Orange Unified school board voted Jan. 14 to allow the school bus searches to continue.
On Tuesday, an Orange Unified official said that no new school bus searches have been launched since January.
“We have not felt the need to do so,” said Joyce Capelle, chief fiscal officer for Orange Unified. Capelle added that she thinks the bus searches proved to be worthwhile. No drugs were found by the dogs.
“I think they sent a clear message to the kids and the community that we take a zero tolerance policy toward drugs on campus,” Capelle said.
Huntington Beach Union High School District includes four high schools in Huntington Beach--Ocean View, Marina, Edison and Huntington Beach High--and Westminster High and Fountain Valley High in those cities. The district also includes a continuation school, Valley Vista High in Fountain Valley.
In random interviews Tuesday, students at some of those high schools expressed mixed opinions about the police dog proposal.
Jennifer McGough, 16, a sophomore at Ocean View High, said: “The positive is the drug situation would be lower. But on the other hand . . . they’re taking a piece of our privacy.”
Amir Korangy, 19, an Ocean View senior, said: “Having dogs sniffing for drugs is a fine way to decrease drugs at school. But the drug problem cannot be solved just with dog sniffing.”
Matt Gardner, 15, a freshman at Fountain Valley High, called the proposal “an invasion of privacy.”
“If they know there is somebody (with drugs), they should do it (make a locker search). But they shouldn’t just check all lockers down the rows,” he said.
Another Fountain Valley High freshman, Dave Boyaner, 16, said he wasn’t opposed to the police dog proposal. But he said he doubts the searches would find any drugs in the lockers. “They don’t keep it in their lockers,” he said. “They keep it on them.”
By contrast, Poe, who is a spokesman for the Huntington Beach Police Department, said police have found that lockers are a good place to look for drugs. “Students don’t usually keep drugs on their body,” he said.
Poe said police expect the proposal to draw some criticism from students.
“Obviously, there will be some students who don’t like it, but those may be the ones we’re looking for,” he said.
Times special correspondents Helaine Olen and Tom McQueeney contributed to this story.