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Investigators: Drug-sniffing dogs in school?

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ST. PETER, Minn. (KMSP) -

Is your child's school drug-free -- and what is reasonable to make sure it is? Many districts are turning to drug-sniffing dogs in an effort to keep campus clean of narcotics, but that's raising concerns about students' rights.

The face a four-legged friend would usually be a welcome sight -- unless you've got something to hide.

"The buzz was, 'The dogs are here today. I need to empty my locker,'" Andrew Aspinwall, with Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, recalled.

The snooping pooches are so dogged with huffing it in the hallways and classrooms so frequently that their work is opening a window into what students are willing to sneak into school.

"Four to five times a school year is when we officially bring the drug dog in," said Paul Peterson, principle at St. Peter High School.

What to those dogs find?

"A lot of medications," JoEllen Peters, handler with Interquest Detection Canines, told the FOX 9 Investigators. "Alcohol, marijuana."

While those searches can uncover some illicit substances and get them off school property, critics wonder what the cost is.

"I suspect if you do more searches, you will find more stuff. The question is: What do you give up?" asked Chuck Samuelson, with ACLU Minnesota.

The FOX 9 Investigators sent surveys to 20 school districts to ask about their use of drug dogs over the past two years. Some kept more than a simple account of contraband, and some schools took different and controversial approaches.

Some schools, like those in the St. Paul School District, hadn't conducted any canine searches during those two years. Neither did schools Eden Prairie, New Brighton, St. Anthony or White Bear Lake.

When asked about how they ferret out drugs in other ways, they wouldn't say -- but Aspinwell, who is now in treatment, said he thinks he knows.

"It was kind of like, 'Can we search you?' and I'm like, 'Yeah,'" he recalled. "I didn't think they'd look in my shoes, but they did."

Aspinwell says old-fashioned intelligence got him busted after another student overheard him talking about smoking weed after school and turned him in. He was in the seventh or eighth grade at the time.

Yet, the dogs have been busy in other schools. In the past two years alone, Elk River Schools have seen 29 sniff-searches. That adds up to at least once a year in each secondary school, and more often if concerns emerge.

Bloomington schools saw 18 searches in two years, and Wayzata schools were close behind with 17 searches. The dogs patrolled the hallways of Owatonna schools 14 times in two years. Minnetonka schools saw six searches in that same time period, and the other districts reported searching once or twice annually.

Some districts, like Minneapolis Public Schools, don't keep track of how many searches they conduct, but the Minneapolis Police Department confirmed their K-9s were used to search Minneapolis schools six times.

"The primary reason to bring the drug dog in is deterrent," Peterson explained.

When the canines come in, a school is usually placed on what's called a "soft lockdown," meaning everyone stays in the classrooms and no one can use their cell phone.

"It was a nerve-wracking ordeal," recalled Josiah Berd.

School officials want to stop students from warning each other, but sometimes, it's too late.

"A lot of times, we could see out the window that the K-9 units were there," Berd said. "If we had something, we would hide it before they came in."

Except Berd wasn't fast enough the time one of those dogs found marijuana in his locker.

"They waited until the last hour, called me into the office and kind of threw it on the desk and asked me, 'What is this?'" he remembered.

Yet, it's not just pot and paraphernalia that are uncovered. The survey found dogs sniffed out prescription drugs like Trazodone and Adderall, fireworks, cigarettes and chewing tobacco, hookah, ditch weed, a wild hemp plant, knives and even shotgun shells.

"We find rifles," Peters admitted. "We found a pistol before."

Those finds came from cars in the parking lot, not school buildings, Peters clarified. Yet, in half of the schools surveyed, the dogs came up empty.

Penalties vary by district and depending on what a kid is caught with.

"They called police and I got a citation for possession," Aspinwall said.

Sometimes, the same drug will get deal different terms to different kids.

"I was suspended for a few days," Berd said.

In many cases, if a student is searched, parents will be called, a multiple-day suspension will be given and sometimes a police citation -- but one Bloomington student got slapped with a felony charge after a dog sniffed out prescription pills.

Yet, perhaps the most interesting difference between the schools is the kind of K-9 they use for the searches, because that can have a big impact on how the search is conducted and what is found. Most schools use police K-9s. Public agencies don't usually charge school districts because they consider it training.

Buster, however, is not a police dog. He works with Interquest Detection Services, a private company that trains its own dogs and charges $300 for a search that would take about half a day.

"We start with a presentation to the school," Peters explained. "We explain to the kids what a dog can find, and if they don't want to meet us, don't bring those things to school."

St. Peter High School was one of two schools that turned to a private company for the search dogs. Unlike the police, the private company won't put the school on lockdown.

"If they flush it -- go into the bathroom and flush it -- then they have lost their money and their product and they're less likely to bring it next time," Peters said.

Privately-owned dogs can also look for more things that are legal on the street -- like cigarettes and prescription medications. Additionally, the dog handlers don't act like police officers.

"We try to be low-key," Peters said. "The way we dress is low-key. The way we act is low-key. I tell them the dog is interested in the locker. I don't say the dog 'alerted' on it."

But does that mean a student who doesn't realize that consenting to a search or answering questions could put them in a police report?

"They can ask," Peters said.

In some schools, however, a student can be disciplined for insubordination if they refuse to let school officials search their belongings once a dog has hit on a locker or backpack, putting the student in what the American Civil Liberties Union calls an impossible position.

"Students do have rights," Samuelson said.

The ACLU doesn't like the idea of dog searches. If the search is a random one, they equate it with going on a hunting expedition because there's no probable cause and no warrant. In fact, even if a school calls in the dogs because they suspect there is a problem, the ACLU still says a warrant is important.

"The requirement fundamentally is that you have some reason for searching that you can articulate to a judge," Samuelson explained.

Interquest Detection Canines claim their searches stand up in court, saying that what they need to search a student's locker or backpack is reasonable suspicion -- and a dog provides that.

In the end, the legality isn't really what matters most to Aspinwall and Berd. Now that they're in recovery, they say they're grateful someone bothered to intervene in retrospect.

"I actually appreciate they are trying to get the drugs out of school because when we are young, we constantly make these mistakes," Aspinwall said.

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