Saying they need more information and time to reflect on what would follow from allowing a police K-9 dog to search for narcotics in New Canaan schools, members of the Board of Education on Monday night decided to forgo voting on a new policy that would introduce the practice.
Even if authorization from school administrators was required for K-9 searches of lockers or other areas, allowing them “has the potential to change kids’ lives,” according to Board of Ed Chair Dionna Carlson.
“It is an important thing,” she said during the board’s regular meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
“We all agree we want drug-free schools. But I think it is also an important thing to say that we have hired experts in their field to deal with kids in crisis. And so we want to do the right thing to keep our schools drug-free, but we also do not want to permanently damage kids that make mistakes. That make mistakes. That is what you do, that is what this district does: They work with kids that make mistakes. And work with them to make better decisions in the future. And I for one think we have an amazing police force, but I do not want our schools to become a police state. I think that has an impact on kids also. The perception that they are constantly being watched. They are already in an environment where they have cameras and videos and they can’t move without everything they do being tracked and everything else. So it is a tough place for these kids and I think we want our schools to be a place where they can learn and grow and they are held accountable for their behavior, but I do not want it to be a life-altering situation.”
The comments came as the school board took up, as a second read, a proposed new policy to introduce the K-9 searches under a number of conditions. They include that the administration would authorize the search in the first place, that the principal or designated individual would be present for it, that searches would be restricted to lockers, classrooms and parking and storage areas, notification of the relevant student in the event that a dog was “alerted” during a search and notification of parents if such an alert led to a search of student’s property.
Yet after tweaking the language of the draft policy during the meeting—it’s based on a template supplied by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education—the school board opted not to vote on it.
Carlson’s comments and the board’s reluctance marks a turnaround from last month, when Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi described such a policy as “worthwhile.”
The Police Department’s push to allow its drug-sniffing dog, Apollo, to search New Canaan High School followed the observation made by a Town Councilman three years ago that several young people in town were dying of overdoses. After that, Apollo searched NCHS as part of a training exercise prior to the start of school, and the following month, the Police Commission said that authorities should be able to conduct real searches.
A conversation opened between police and district officials, though the effort appeared to lose steam until the arrest in April of a New Canaan High School coach after authorities found him to be in possession of 20 bags of heroin. (The arrested man’s coaching permit was found to have expired, and a recent Board of Ed meeting, the NCHS athletic director outlined new steps the district is taking with respect to ensuring proper certification as well as some common difficulties surrounding the certification process.) After that happened, both police officials and residents urged the district to allow the K-9 searches.
For much of its discussion Monday, the school board talked about adjusting specific wording in the policy. Board member Maria Naughton said it would be important to notify parents proactively, every academic year, about the policy, instead of relegating its existence to a handbook or web page.
School board member Sheri West agreed, saying the policy could serve as a deterrent if it were made widely known, just as the practice of breathalyzing students at prom lets people know that those drinking shouldn’t attend.
Yet Carlson noted that she had an exchange with the police chief and learned that if a dog alerts authorities to an item that is connected to a student—for example, a backpack or locker—then officers would have “probable cause” to search that item, regardless of authorization from school officials.
Board members also voiced concern over a section of the proposed policy that reads: “Law enforcement agencies will be given full authorization to investigate and prosecute any person(s) found to be responsible for illegal substance(s) on school property.”
Naughton said she agreed with Carlson about her concerns, and that “more information” is “definitely needed” before law enforcement officials are invited into the schools.
Board member Tom Cronin said that at some point the group may put a policy in place that allows for K-9 searches “but we have to understand we can always change it.”
The board ultimately agreed to take up the matter at its next meeting.