Hounding the Public

It doubles as a school and a pharmacy, of sorts -- a place to learn and buy cheap drugs, mostly marijuana, from some of the hippest kids in town. Longmont High School has a bad reputation.

In a quest to change that, Principal Mary White has turned students over to the dogs -- drug-sniffing, booze-niffing, gunpowder-sniffing dogs. Her actions represent a growing and prosperous trend among business leaders, educators and government bureaucrats who are using man's best friend to rid institutions of contraband. Soon, promises the executive of a company that trains and sells the dogs, working canines will be a common sight for ordinary, average Americans.

The fast times at Longmont High, once a secret, became well-known last year after police arrested an 18-year-old student who was reportedly dealing up to three pounds of marijuana each week to his fellow students. A subsequent survey of high school juniors in the St. Vrain Valley School District revealed that 53 percent of them admit to smoking pot -- 33 percent during the school day. On the heels of that bomb shell, Andy Hopping, the high school's student body vice president, went public with a desperate letter from a student who described Longmont High as "drug capital of the Front Range."

So in December, on the last day of school before winter break, White brought in the drug dogs that she says will become part of the scenery at her school. The dogs -- a chocolate lab, a yellow lab, a brown lab and a Jack Russell Terrier -- will patrol the campus randomly during surprise visits and let their handlers know which lockers and cars in the parking lot might contain drugs, alcohol or other contraband.

"When you get to the point that the education and prevention approach aren't enough, you have to go to a more restrictive measure," says White.

Her actions outraged some parents, teachers and students, who held a forum in November after hearing about the principal's plans. Critics complained of the invasion of privacy and lack of trust the dogs would represent. Some students promised that the dogs would drive a dangerous and destructive wedge between students and school administration.

White wasn't fazed, and she exhibits little concern for the privacy of students.

"I understand their point, but do you take action to protect the privacy of kids who are violating policies and laws, or do you take action to protect the interests of innocent kids who just want a decent and safe education?" White says. "I have to protect the interests of innocent students who expect and deserve a top-notch education."

Her viewpoint represents a growing philosophy among educators, judges and leaders of government and private institutions in a post-Columbine, post-Sept. 11 America. Contraband-sniffing dogs in public probably won't generate headlines and debate forums soon, as they'll likely be so common.

Don't count on the limitations of over-burdened law enforcement to keep this practice in check. Despite what local newspapers reported, the Longmont drug dogs have nothing to do with police. Nor do most modern contraband-sniffing dogs. Rather, the dogs are owned and managed privately. They're part of a new industry that grew by leaps and bounds with every school shooting in the late 1990s, and has flourished even more since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Every time some kid makes the news for bringing a gun to school, our phones ring off the hook," says Mike Ferdinand, vice president of Interquest Detection Canines in Houston.

The Longmont High School dogs belong to a small company in Fort Collins called Sherlock Hounds, owned by former school teachers Nita Bitner and Beth Kelly. In addition to Longmont High, the business services schools in Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland, Gilcrest, Winsor and Fort Lupton. Bitner says she has spoken with the Boulder Valley School District about her services, but was told the board has more interest in security guards than in dogs.

The race to accommodate schools that want crime-sniffing dogs has Interquest aggressively selling franchises in all 50 states.

"I'd like to think that dogs will be common, in most schools, in the very near future," Ferdinand says. "Our experience is that once one school district in a region takes advantage of our services, it becomes a 'me too' phenomenon, and it dominoes through all the other schools in the area."

That has been the company's experience in Colorado. The Colorado franchise of Interquest is owned by Shane Kepler, in Colorado Springs. Kepler's franchise began two years ago with one school as a client. Today, says Ferdinand, the company has dogs sniffing the lockers and parked cars at several hundred schools belonging to about 25 school districts between Pueblo and south Denver. It's only a matter of time, Ferdinand says, before dogs walk the halls of most Colorado schools.

Ferdinand says he tried to interest administrators at Columbine High School in hiring contraband-sniffing dogs for two months before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out their killing spree. Students who play with gunpowder, says Ferdinand, are usually detected by Interquest's dogs for questioning by school officials.

The company has franchisees in 18 states so far, and Ferdinand says he has gained contracts since Sept. 11 to provide dogs for various facilities run by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Internal Revenue Service and a host of movie and television studios in southern California. Ferdinand is also receiving a barrage of inquiries from private business owners who wish dogs to keep their premises free of drugs, alcohol, guns and explosives.

The company sells its franchises to just about anyone with the money who gets along nicely with dogs. A franchise -- exclusive to one state in most cases -- costs anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000. For that cost, the franchisee receives a trained dog, training to handle the dog, and leads on thousands of potential customers. It's a small one-time fee, says Ferdinand, considering the fact that one dog generates between $60,000 and $90,000 each year. The overhead? Minimal.

"It costs a franchisee about $1,200 a year to maintain a dog, including food, water and veterinary bills," Ferdinand says.

Furthermore, a contraband-canine franchise may be relatively recession proof. It costs a school district $600 a day for each Interquest dog to sniff the lockers and parked cars. But the money doesn't come from the district's operating budget. Almost always, says Ferdinand, the dogs are paid for with federal funds from Title 4 -- better known as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program.

"Most schools find that the (dog) program results in more funds coming to the school," Ferdinand says. "In most states, education funding is tied directly to average daily attendance. Administrators find that by reducing drug and alcohol problems, and reducing the fear about weapons, average drop-out rates go down and average daily attendance goes up. In most cases, the program more than pays for itself."

Ferdinand's getting rich off of hysteria over drugs, guns and terrorist bombs. Listening to him, however, one gets the impression he could care less about the cash. Rather, he's on a mission to right all that's wrong with society -- to save the children, to clean up the schools, to isolate and alienate the "druggies," to make the workplace a kinder, gentler, less fear-based environment.

His critics, however, aren't impressed. Drug-sniffing dogs are to civil libertarians, after all, the equivalent of rotting blood-soaked liver to hungry pit bulls.

"This war on drugs, and surveys show that most of the public concurs, is completely out of hand," says Carla Selby, chairwoman emeritus of the Boulder chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "So bringing that into our schools, in this exceedingly intrusive and terrifying manner, is absolutely outrageous. What kind of message are you teaching children who ought to be learning how to defend and uphold their constitutional rights against unlawful searches and seizures? These children ought to be learning, in order to be good citizens, that all people are innocent until proven guilty and that authorities need substantial evidence before searching them or questioning them as suspects. We are creating bad citizens with this -- people who will have no understanding of, nor respect for, their own autonomy and privacy let alone the rights of others."

The ACLU has sued on several occasions, saying the dogs violate the civil liberties of students. They've consistently lost in court, making case law on the subject perfectly clear: School administrators have every legal right to investigate lockers and cars with odor-sensitive dogs. Period.

"There's simply no question anymore," says G. Daniel Harden, professor of education law at Washburn University. "Dogs can be used to sniff inanimate objects anywhere in society, so they certainly can do so in schools. The air around a suitcase, a car, a locker -- even a person -- is open game. It's not considered invasive for an animal to sniff air, so no warrant is required."

Furthermore, Harden says, the expectation of privacy is far lower for juveniles in public schools than for adults in open society.

"Police need 'probable cause' to obtain a warrant and conduct a search of private property," Harden says. "School lockers are not private property. Furthermore, school administrators don't need probable cause. They need only 'reasonable suspicion' to conduct a search, and that's a far lower burden than probable cause."

Case law aside, Selby argues that it's simply unfair and indecent. Students shouldn't be needlessly invaded by dogs because someone might be using or selling drugs. It's not worth it, she says. Harden, a former high school administrator, concurs -- but with exceptions.

"The dogs are probably more disruptive and counter-productive than they're worth, if you're talking about a school in which a few students are using drugs out back," Harden says. "In that case, who cares? Let the druggies smoke, and focus your attention on helping the students who want to learn. If those potheads become a substantial and influential group in the school, however, and they're disrupting the mission of disciplined and rigorous education, then more dramatic steps must be taken."

One might expect Ferdinand -- in a quest to make a fortune off the noses of dogs -- would be happy to simply lean on his court victories and the legally sanctioned rights of principals over students. He's not. When confronted with concerns of civil liberties defenders, Ferdinand continues to insist that Interquest's dogs represent a moral crusade for all that's right and good -- up to and including the defense of civil liberties.

Without dogs, he argues, school administrators are forced to use biased information and their own human instincts to identify drug users and sellers. That system, he says, is inherently flawed by the limitations of human nature.

"Unlike a human, these dogs make no distinction between a black kid, a white kid, a yellow kid or a red kid," Ferdinand says. "The dogs make no assumptions about the valedictorian's car, and it's not inclined to target the black convertible Mustang at the corner of the lot where the druggies hang out. This is truly random, objective, unbiased detection. This takes the human element out and let's man's best friend solve a problem for him."

During the first sniffing operation at Longmont High, White says no drugs, guns nor contraband of any kind were found. Dogs didn't sniff the entire school, and focused only on parking lots and gym lockers. During future searches, White says, the dogs will be taken randomly to other parts of the school.

Most of the dogs used for sniffing operations have noses so sensitive they will signal trouble with a locker if it contains a jacket that has been subjected to marijuana smoke in the air. Or it will signal trouble with a car trunk that contains any remnants of gunpowder from a hunting trip.

"The dog sits down next to the locker, or car or object in question," Ferdinand says. "That tells the handler that something has been detected. Then the student is questioned by a member of the school administration. Many times the student has simply ridden to school in a car where other students were smoking a joint, and the smell got into his or her clothes."

The over-sensitivity of the dogs, says Ferdinand, serves to limit the size and influence of dope cliques.

"Once it becomes apparent to students that even being around marijuana smoke may trigger the dog's nose, then you see an interesting phenomenon take place," Ferdinand says. "Non-drug using students become more leery of taking a ride in that car with other students who smoke pot, because they know it might result in some explaining later that day. It causes an isolation of the druggies, and that prevents them from gaining influence and control."

If he's right, the hounding by dogs at Longmont High might someday remove the Rx logo that's entrenched in the school's public image.

"This is the least intrusive method of the intrusive methods out there," says Nita Bitner, of Sherlock Hounds. "I'd like to think kids will gain enough sense to someday put us out of business, but that's not likely. Soon, these programs will be in most schools."

Write to the author at letters@boulderweekly.com.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close