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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 22, 2011

“Why now?”
Should GCSD allow police dogs to search high school lockers?

GUILDERLAND —The superintendent’s request that police dogs be allowed to search high-school lockers and storage areas for illegal substances divided the school board.

“I really disagree with this whole concept,” said board member Denise Eisele at last week’s meeting.

“Why now?” asked board member Richard Weisz, stating there have been years and years of not having such searches.

Superintendent Marie Wiles said the request came from the “high school leadership” and was “not an attempt to catch any one but rather to remind folks we are paying attention.”

Weisz, a lawyer, argued that police may believe they have “an open-and-shut case” if they find drugs in a student’s locker when, in fact, the drugs could have been placed there by someone else.

Barbara Fraterrigo, who heads the board’s policy committee, which is revising the policy on student searches and interrogations, said the searches wouldn’t be punitive but, rather, “to tell kids we really care.”

“They’ll be escorted out of the school in handcuffs,” responded Eisele. “It’s a punitive situation. They’re not going to get that kind of help.”

“This stuff does not belong in our schools,” said Fraterrigo, mentioning drug problems at neighboring districts. “It’s not a healthy environment.”

Fraterrigo told The Enterprise yesterday, “The new principal wants to be proactive and let kids know we really want them to be safe.” She also said it was “complete coincidence” that Principal Thomas Lutsic, new this year, made his request at the same time the policy committee, which updates policies on an ongoing basis, happened to be working on the policy dealing with searches.

Fraterrigo said that she was comfortable with the idea of police-dog searches. “The parents would be informed that a search could happen….We don’t want to have to face what Bethlehem and Niskayuna have been facing,” she concluded, alluding to highly publicized drug problems.

“Using K-9 units is just one component of several we’re looking at to communicate with students and parents about the importance of a drug-free environment that is good for education,” Lutsic told The Enterprise yesterday. Other components, he said, might include “presentations or speakers.” He stressed, “It’s just in the planning stages.”

Asked how many Guilderland students might be using drugs or alcohol, Lutsic said, “I don’t have a lot of data.” He went on, “We have a strong social worker department here and a school resource officer,” which, Lutsic said, helps deter drug use.

“Every school I’ve been in has done it,” said Lutsic of police-dog searches. “It communicates to the community that the school is conscious of keeping kids safe.”

He went on, “It’s not a wide-range tool for catching people. It’s more of a preventative measure.”

Asked if an arrest would follow the discovery of marijuana in a student locker, Lutsic said, “The police and K-9 unit dogs do not interact with the kids. It would be handled the way we handle it now if we smelled something ourselves or had information something was in a locker….It’s then an administrative thing,” he said, indicating school officials rather than police would handle the matter.

Over the last decade, The Enterprise has covered only sporadic drug arrests at the high school. In 2007, for example, a 17-year-old was arrested at the high school for unlawful possession of marijuana after two large Baggies of marijuana were found hidden in a sock in his book bag while at school, the arrest report said.

In 2005, the guardian of a 16-year-old called the police station and said he might have taken prescription pills from the house; he was called to the principal’s office where he was asked to empty his pockets and the school resource officer saw a pot pipe tucked in his shoe. The pipe contained marijuana so he was arrested for unlawful possession.

The 16-year-old said he had taken two prescription pills that morning, the arrest report said, and that he had given at least 20 other pills to his friends, whose names he would not disclose.

Brian Forte, the school resource officer at the time, said then “We’ve had a few arrests, not as prevalent as what the road guys have,” referring to Guilderland Police who patrol town roads. Asked about follow-up, Forte said, “It’s in the hands of the court system.” In general, with cases of substance abuse, he said, “We talk to the parents and we suggest they seek help. Usually, parents try to get their kids help.”

Policy revisions

The school board will vote on the proposed policy revisions at a later meeting.

Guilderland’s current policy says school officials can conduct searches of students and their belongings if they have “reasonable suspicion to believe that the search will result in evidence that the student violated the law or the district code of conduct.” The search may be initiated based on “information received from a reliable informant,” the policy says.

An addition to the policy is that “school officials will attempt to notify parents by telephone, and follow up in writing in the event that a search has been initiated.”

Referring to the policy’s requirement of informing parents after a search, Eisele asked, “Shouldn’t that happen before the search is initiated?”

“The premise,” said Colleen O’Connell, a lawyer who is the school board’s president, “is students have no expectation of privacy in lockers or backpacks…that’s Supreme Court law.”

Besides lockers, desks, and other school storage places, the new policy proposal says, “Additionally, personal vehicles on district property may be searched upon reasonable suspicion of a violation of the code of conduct.”

The policy also addresses strip searches, which it defines as requiring “a student to remove any or all of his or her clothing, other than an outer coat or jacket.” The proposed policy says, “Strip searches by school officials are prohibited, unless the school official believes there is an emergency situation that poses an immediate threat to the safety of the student or others.”

Weisz said he could see doing a strip search for weapons, but not for drugs. “Who’s going to make the decision?” he asked.

“We made it pretty narrow,” said O’Connell, who serves on the policy committee. “We don’t feel we have time to call the police.”

“Maybe I’m just over-lawyering,” said Weisz, stating he felt “queasy about the whole thing.”

On police involvement, the policy draft notes that counsel for the State Education Department has indicated, “Police authorities have no power to interview children in schools or to use school facilities in connection with police department work, and that a school board has no right to make children available for such purposes.” Also, it notes, police officers have no legal right to interrogate a student in school without parental permission since custody of the child by the school is limited to education purposes.

The Guilderland policy states, “District officials are committed to cooperating with police officials and other law enforcement authorities to maintain a safe school environment,” but police may enter a school to question or search a student only if they have a search or arrest warrant, or probable cause to believe a crime has been committed on school property or at a school function.

The original Guilderland policy had a third reason — “Been invited by school officials” — which has been eliminated in the new proposal.

Guilderland has had a school resource officer, known as an SRO, for about a decade; a member of the Guilderland Police Department, he is stationed full-time in the school. Asked if the SRO would be allowed, under the policy, to question students, as he has in the past, without a warrant or probable cause, Fraterrigo said that the policy applied to “an outside officer.” She went on, “An SRO is like an employee in the district. What we didn’t want happening was police coming in and interrogating someone during the school day.”

Lutsic said, “Some students have a relationship with the SRO and go to him to talk about things,” which is fine, he said. Also, Lutsic said, “With parental permission, discussions are held with the SRO with an administrator present.”

He concluded, “Kids are not interrogated, arrested or handcuffed…It’s mostly a conversation that is had.”

If a parent can’t be reached, to be given a chance to be present during police questioning or searching, the original policy said it would not take place. The new policy proposal says, in that situation, sans parent, “The questioning or search shall not be conducted unless the student is 16 years of age or older.”

Students who are questioned by police at school, the policy says, will have the same rights they have outside the school: They must be informed of their legal rights; they may remain silent; and they may request an attorney.

The new policy proposal adds a fourth right: “They must be protected from coercion and illegal restraint.”

—By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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