Trust can tumble like dominoes

 “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
— Ernest Hemmingway


Everyone agrees that schools should be safe.

The question is: Safe from what? Do students need to be protected from the harm that may come from outside their schools or from within?

We ask this question because, on Nov. 6, the Guilderland School Board, during its televised meeting, will consider having a German shepherd, trained to detect drugs and handled by a Guilderland police officer, become part of the high school scene.

The police dog named Rocky and his handler, Donald Jones, may be stationed in the school’s parking lot at dismissal “so folks get to understand this is a resource, that it’s not to scare anyone,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told us.

Kids who are now in high school once marched as younger students in honor of Niko, a German shepherd handled by Jones, that died of cancer in 2007. Jones worked with Niko for nine years and called the dog his partner.

On one of his many visits to the school, Jones showed the kids a picture of the new puppy, not yet named, which he would train. That puppy grew to be a fine police dog; Rocky has made many trips to school and town events where he is a popular attraction.

Many of us, including no doubt kids at Guilderland High School, love dogs — but it is not the dog per se that scares us. Police dogs are trained and deployed for specific purposes; some are trained to attack on command, others are trained to detect drugs or weapons.

The Guilderland Police once had a T-shirt that featured their “K-9 unit” and said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” The idea was the dog would be able to sniff out the bad guys. Who are the bad guys at Guilderland High School?

“It’s all about prevention,” the superintendent says. “We’re not doing this to catch students.”

Why, then, have a dog on school grounds?

The idea was first broached two years ago when a new principal came to the high school. “Every school I’ve been in has done it,” Thomas Lutsic said at the time. “It communicates to the community that the school is conscious of keeping kids safe.”

The school board members who strenuously disagreed at that time have since retired.

Guilderland hasn’t had a problem with drugs being found in school. The superintendent said it was “very rare” — typically pot or prescription drugs discovered through “tips from students.”

A review of the arrest records from the Guilderland Police over the last year, which we print weekly, showed no drug arrests at the high school.

Could it be that Guilderland isn’t like “every school” and that what it has in place is far more powerful than the threat of being found out by a trained police dog?

It’s called trust.

The superintendent said the current board members had an “a-ha moment” when they were told, “No student would be taken out in handcuffs or traumatized.”

But what about the vast majority of students without drugs in their lockers? How will they feel?

We believe they will feel violated, as they should.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Schools, by law, are allowed to maintain safe learning environments. A 1985 Supreme Court case helped define how far the constitutional guarantee went. The court held that a warrant was not needed for an assistant principal in a New Jersey High School to search the purse of a 14-year-old girl seen by a teacher smoking in the restroom. A reduced standard of “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause” now governs school searches.

A number of cases since have debated and helped define what that means. School officials are allowed to conduct random or blanket searches — for instance, using metal detectors — as a preventative measure. Drug-sniffing dogs in schools are the most controversial of these random searches but most courts have ruled that the practice is not a search if the dogs don’t sniff students or their belongings but, rather, sniff the air around their property.

But it is not a clear-cut, across-the-board allowable practice. In a 1999 federal case, B.C. v. Plumas Unified School District, the court ruled a dog sniffing a student requires individualized, reasonable suspicion, not justified by the prevention of drug abuse. That rings true for us.

Why should Guilderland seek to jeopardize Fourth Amendment rights?

We’ve been heartened over the years by the school district’s treatment of students with great respect. In 1999, the week of the school killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., we wrote an editorial, “Our schools should be sanctuaries, not citadels,” praising the board and superintendent’s approach — as many districts rushed to beef up security, installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and hiring armed officers — to instead stress the need for “the development of a caring community, one in which we look after each other.”

Many school shootings later, in 2002, we read with interest the United States Secret Service’s Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and creating safe school climates, which reported that many of the shooters told investigators that alienation or persecution drove them to violence.

In the wake of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Littletown, Conn., we wrote about the report, “Tending Our Youth,” endorsed by more than 100 organizations representing over four million professionals, including teachers, principals, psychologists, social workers, and mental-health workers.

“Inclination to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered,” the professionals write. The report details several successful programs.

Trust is an underlying tenet. “Building relationships within and around the school community can help keep school violence from happening while fostering academic success,” the report states. “For students, trusting relationships with adults are critical to learning.”

We believe having a police dog patrolling the school hallways will undermine that trust that is so essential for learning. We also believe another measure under discussion — having “the Guilderland Police Department tap into our camera system…so they can see what we see in real time,” as the superintendent put it — will undermine trust.

In a recent contract agreement with the Guilderland Employees’ Association, the district agreed the cameras, which, according to one of the negotiators, are “all over the place,” would not be used to watch employees and then discipline them.

They should not be used to watch students, either.

The harm that will be done may be subtle — scars on the psyche, wounds to the heart, wherever you believe trust resides — but it will be painfully real.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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