With handler Whitney White standing by, Custer, a drug-sniffing golden retriever, demonstrates how he finds contraband. CLICK FOR LARGE
Search dog sniffs out drugs at 2 Maui schools
The success of the pilot program has education officials urging its expansion
Custer, a 6-year-old golden retriever, has been successfully sniffing out drugs and alcohol at two Maui schools since February and proponents say the pilot search program should be expanded to schools statewide.
State education officials plan to take up the issue by the end of the month. An expansion of the plan could also include allowing the dogs to search lockers, backpacks, purses and vehicles on campus.
One Board of Education member said the timing is right, with the recent approval of random drug-testing for teachers.
While the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns about students' privacy rights, principals at the two Maui schools say the response has been positive.
A drug-sniffing dog that found marijuana and several liquor bottles at two Maui public schools could prompt education officials to expand the pilot program and allow for drug searches of students' lockers.
In seven random visits to Lahaina Intermediate School since February, Custer, a 6-year-old golden retriever, found two bags with marijuana or traces of the drug, a partially smoked joint or marijuana cigarette, rolling papers and about 30 liquor bottles, said Principal Marsha Nakamura.
Lahainaluna High School Principal Michael Nakano said the unannounced dog visits also uncovered alcohol bottles and marijuana on his campus.
Board of Education member Mary Cochran, who spearheaded the 5-month-old program, said she believes it should be added to all secondary schools.
"That's what I want. The timing is right politically, with the random drug-testing" of teachers, said Cochran, who represents Maui. "To me, it's not just the teachers, it's everybody."
The proposal comes as the state Department of Education is revising Chapter 19, the administrative rules on student misconduct, to possibly allow dogs to sniff students' lockers.
"How it's written, it prevents us from doing it," said schools Deputy Superintendent Clayton Fujie, citing student privacy rights. The revisions to the rules will be sent to the Attorney General's Office and presented to the school board by month's end, Fujie said.
Searches are OK only in common areas like cafeterias, gymnasiums and bushes, with students, lockers, backpacks, purses and vehicles being off-limits.
Whitney White, owner of Interquest Detection Canines of Hawaii, which is running the pilot program on Maui, said principals want access to lockers.
"The principals that I've been dealing with have really been pushing for more latitude in that," she said.
The company, which has search dogs in 1,200 school districts nationwide, would be able to cover all 297 Hawaii public schools "as quickly as possible" if asked, White said. She said only Hawaii and Alaska lack comprehensive dog-search programs in public schools.
Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen said the idea behind any pilot program is to decide whether it should be continued or dropped.
"It could be expanded, but there's no specific plans that I'm aware of right now," he said. "We just need to see if it does hold up legally and effectively."
When the department announced it would use dogs to combat drugs, alcohol and firearms, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the random searches could violate students' rights. But parent and student reaction to the program has been positive, according to the Maui principals.
Nakamura said most of the contraband found at her campus, including a punctured beer bottle likely used as a device to smoke pot, were near a basketball court used by area residents in the evening and weekends. She said, however, that one plastic bag containing the drug was hidden in a bush fronting a classroom, and that at least six students have been caught doing drugs on campus.
School board member Herbert Watanabe said while he backs increasing the program's reach, funding would be a concern. He suggested starting with all high schools and possibly exempting elementary campuses.
"I can support the whole concept of it, but I don't know what the costs would be," he said.
White couldn't estimate costs of an statewide program, saying that expenses vary depending on how often it is done. She said the pilot project is paid for with grants.
Karen Knudsen, chairwoman of the school board, said student safety should take priority over funding if members opt to spread the program to all counties.
"I wouldn't let cost stand in the way," she said. "If it's effective, if it's deterring drugs on campus, then maybe we need to find the money for a program like this."