Good vote on school locker search


POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

The state Board of Education is on solid ground in allowing public school officials to make sure that students' lockers are not used as caches for weapons, illicit drugs or other contraband. Its decision to use dogs to sniff for drugs could be helpful as long as they don't sniff students themselves in violation of their privacy rights.

The board approved the new rules in an 8-4 vote in favor of allowing random searches of lockers. The rule change stipulates that “;students should assume that their lockers are subject to opening and inspection (and external dog sniffs) any time with or without cause.”;

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Hawaii in its jurisdiction, indicated in a 1999 ruling that it recognizes that “;the sniffing of inanimate and unattended objects”; is legal, differing from warrantless searches of students themselves.

The board-approved rule, which awaits a review by Attorney General Mark Bennett and Gov. Linda Lingle's signature, states that “;students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their persons”; on school grounds. It bans random searches of students themselves and searches of them lacking “;reasonable grounds to suspect”; prohibited activity. Bennett has assured the board that random locker searches are allowed “;at any time with or without reason or cause.”;

The rules go beyond those used in a four-month pilot program two years ago at three Maui public schools, where dog-sniffing was confined to public areas on school grounds, such as cafeterias and gymnasiums. They were not allowed to sniff students, their lockers or their cars, but did discover empty liquor bottles and traces of marijuana in public areas.

Criminologist Katherine Irwin told board members that drug-sniffing dogs are ineffective. If so, schools may determine that the effort is not worth the irritation caused by their presence.

More important is the part of the measure that clearly eliminates any expectation of privacy in student lockers. The language to be stricken from the schools' rules has given students “;a legitimate expectation of privacy”; that extends to “;school property assigned for individual use,”; which has included lockers.

Board member Kim Coco Iwamoto voted against the change, concerned that it would violate the Constitution. However, constitutional rights are violated when a person's expectation of privacy has been infringed. If no privacy can be expected, no violation occurs.