Terrorizing Kindergarteners

As if urine screenings in schools were not humiliating enough, a school in South Dakota is accused of allowing a suspicionless drug search by a canine that resulted in terrified children.
Wagner Community Schools in southeast South Dakota is accused of allowing a suspicionless drug search by a canine that resulted in crying, trembling students, one of whom, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, involuntarily urinated in his pants.

The search was conducted by a police officer with a German Shepherd, accompanied by a school official.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of 17 Native American students, ages 6 to 17, who accused their school board and local police department of terrorizing them and violating their rights during two separate "lockdowns" in May.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that at one point the dog was running around the classroom uncontrolled, and six-year-old students, who were informed not to make any sudden moves that could provoke the dog to attack, became terrified enough to try running away. One 11-year old girl, Kayedee De Verney, who had been injured by dogs twice before, begged her mother every day for two weeks not to send her back to school, terrified that the dog could return, the lawsuit alleges. Her mother tried to convince school officials to let her know when the dog would return, but was refused and told by the school principal that the dog may return in the future.

The already frightened students were subjected to personal searches in which the dog sniffed them closely and occasionally touched them; one student, though he was instructed not to touch or even look at the dog, panicked and kicked the dog, according to the complaint. During the lock down, students missed at least 45 minutes of class time that was never made up and were not allowed to go to the bathroom for over two hours.

"This incident could only occur in an environment that places the war on drugs over common sense," said Graham Boyd lead counsel for the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project. Speaking to DRCNet, Boyd criticized this type of search for lacking focus, violating rights and being ineffective. He pointed out that locker searches are legal, much less intrusive and more likely to uncover drugs, which were not found in this search.

Ken Cotton, legal counsel for the Wagner schools, told DRCNet personal searches were necessary because the administration had received complaints that a third grader and a sixth grader were aware of the presence of drugs on the playground, which would indicate that the drugs were kept on their person not in their lockers. He also cited a recent survey of Wagner students which found that 33% of all children in seventh grade and above and 40% of all children up through 6th grade felt that drugs were a problem at the school.

Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the Dakotas chapter of the ACLU, questioned the motivation for the search, telling DRCNet it was unreasonable to "expect drugs to be in the possession of kids this young." Ring said the search would not have occurred in an area without a large Native American presence in a school system with only white authorities. Though 40% of students in Wagner are Native American, the school board is completely white. Ring said she believed unfounded prejudice toward Native Americans fueled drug-related fears that provoked the search. Boyd said that the searches were probably symbolic, to show that the school was hard on drugs.

Cotton vehemently denied any allegations of prejudice. When asked if racial bias may have played a role in the searches, he replied that its role was "absolutely none." Upon mention of the racial disparity in representation on the school board, Cotton asked unresponsively, "How come the 17 plaintiffs are all Native American if all students had the same search?"

Cotton contested many of the allegations in the ACLU suit. According to Cotton, dogs were not allowed into classrooms with students in kindergarten, first or second grades. The first four plaintiffs were in those grades and these students made many of the more pointed allegations, including that of the dog running around the classroom unrestrained. He also claims that two of the listed plaintiffs were not present for the searches. Denying the incident in which one child soiled himself, Cotton says that no teachers were able to substantiate the claim.

According to Ring, though, the search was intrusive and would have been unconstitutional even if carried out only on high school students.

Darrell Rogers, National Outreach Coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, slammed the drug dog searches. "SSDP condemns the action of Wagner's school board and police department for turning places of education and trust into those of fear and embarrassment. SSDP believes that the best roads to decreasing the harms of drug use would be to build a sense of trust between teachers, students, parents and administrators," said Rogers.

The ACLU's "primary goal" in the lawsuit is to ensure that this type of search is not repeated in the school, though damages may also be sought, said Boyd. Cotton said that "an agreement has been reached in principle not [to] utilize the dogs in occupied classrooms until litigation is settled."
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