California school district drafts revisions to its search and seizure policies under threat of lawsuit

According to the La Canada Valley Sun, La Canada Unified School District (LCUSD) is revising its policies after the constitutionality of the school district’s search and seizure practices were questioned by a parent who is a career federal public defender. LCUSD’s officials [in 2009] conducted an unannounced search of students’ personal items, such as backpacks, using drug-sniffing dogs at La Canada High School. After the dogs were brought on-campus, students were told to leave their backpacks and other belongings behind in the classroom. They were taken to another location on campus while the dogs sniffed the area and the students’ personal items.

Attorney Guy Iversen, the father of two sons at LCHS who were subject to that search, addressing the school board, said, “Technically, if you don’t have justification, that’s a kidnapping,” Iversen said. He contends the search violated students’ rights because “when they were separated from their personal belongings against their will — without reasonable suspicion — their constitutional rights were violated.” According to Iversen, he’s been in negotiations with LCUSD for the past three months regarding a potential lawsuit. He has indicated that he will work with the district, provided it agrees to three actions: remedial sanctions, a written letter of apology to his sons and that he be allowed to address LHS’s students in an assembly to educate them about their rights.

LCUSD’s  assistant superintendent of human resources, Wendy Sinnette, acknowledged that the practices weren’t legal and that was one of the reasons for making the revisions. Although the revisions focused on four main changes to the policy, the school board rejected the proposed changes because of concerns about how the changes were written.

First, student lockers would be subject to search at any time “with or without reasonable individualized suspicion,” as they are district property. Second, metal detectors could be used to search individuals on or off campus at school activities. The third proposed change would allow trained detection canines to come on campus unannounced “to sniff out and alert to substances prohibited by law or district policy.” The dogs wouldn’t be permitted into classrooms or district facilities unoccupied by students; and students couldn’t be forced to leave personal belongings behind for the dogs to sniff. Another proposed change stated that canines would only be allowed to sniff a student, patron, visitor or any other individual on district property if there was an “objectively reasonable suspicion” they were in the possession of contraband.

Iversen criticized the proposed revisions as being “so screwed up” because they don’t meet the goal of aligning with the law. Joel Peterson, a school board member, admitted the proposed revision to the policy was poorly crafted.

Source: La Canada Valley Sun, 11/18/10, By Andrew Shortall

[Editor's Note: The use of drug-sniffing dogs as means of combating drug use in schools can result in opposition from students, parents and the community.  An analysis of four recent court decisions addressing drug detection dog searches at school is available to COSA members at the first link below; a companion article is available at the second link.

In September 2010, Courthouse News Service reported that the parents of two Springfield Public Schools (SPS) high school students had filed suit against SPS  in federal court after the students were subjected to a school-wide drug search by local law enforcement officers. Mellony and Douglas Burlison’s suit named SPS, along with a number of school officials and the local sheriff, as defendants. According to the suit, during the third period at Central High School (CHS), the principal announced on the loudspeaker “that the school was going into ‘lockdown’ and that students may not leave their classrooms.”  The suit also charges that at that time, deputies of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office were present at CHS along with dogs, "at the invitation of SPS and CHS administrators.” A summary of the article, including links to further stories on drug-sniffing dogs, is available at the third link below.]

Inquiry and Analysis article on drug detection dog searches of property at school, November 2010

Inquiry and Analysis article on using drug-sniffing dogs on students, July, 2006

NSBA Legal Clips archives on SPS suit

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