North Carolina

Why police dogs won’t be sniffing out drugs in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools anymore

After criticism from local civil rights lawyers, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will stop using drug-sniffing dogs for “suspicionless searches.”

“After discussing this issue with school-based staff, I am suspending the use of dog searches,” Superintendent Pamela Baldwin said in a Tuesday letter to The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “I am hopeful that our education, mental health, and other initiatives — and the constant vigilance of our teachers and staff — will prevent an escalation in drug activity on campus.”

Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney for the committee, welcomed the change.

“I think her decision to suspend the program is an important step forward,” he said. “I appreciate them acting so quickly to address those concerns.”

The committee contacted the school district after Carrboro High principal Beverly Rudolph emailed parents in September about a recent “suspicionless search” at the school, which she told parents called Carrboro police in “from time to time” to search for drugs.

Police dogs picked up scents during a Sept. 3 search, Rudolph told parents in the email, but found no drugs.

Efforts to reach Baldwin and Rudolph for more information were unsuccessful.

A police officer and drug-sniffing dog patrol an Indiana school in this file photo. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has suspended suspicionless searches using drug-sniffing police dogs after complaints from a civil rights group. South Bend Tribune via AP Michael Caterina

Students’ privacy rights

The lawyers’ committee wrote a letter to Baldwin, school board Chair Joal Broun and Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle on Oct. 10 urging the school district to “immediately end the practice” of suspicionless drug searches using drug-sniffing dogs.

“We believe that these suspicionless dog sniffs undermine students’ privacy rights, are not effective at deterring drug use, and will likely exacerbate already extreme racial disparities in discipline in the district,” the letter said. “Bringing dogs into schools treats every student as a suspect; students who are searched based on a false alert face humiliation, embarrassment and anger.”

The letter cited studies that showed dog searches to be inaccurate, including a Washington school district study that showed dogs were incorrect 85 percent of the time and a Chicago Tribune analysis that found dogs used in traffic stops had a 56 percent error rate which increased to 73 percent when the suspect was Latino.

There were 51 drug-related violations in the CHCCCS district in the 2014-2015 school year according to data from the district. That fell 45 the following year, 30 in 2016-2017, and 25 in 2017-2018, the most recent year recorded.

The school district has used dog searches both to identify students with illegal substances and to deter students from bringing drugs to school in the future, district spokesman Jeff Nash said. It does not have a record of how many times drug-sniffing dogs have been used, he said.

“In my experience, some school leaders suggest that dog searches have helped to reduce the presence of drugs and drug activity in schools,” Baldwin said in her response to the lawyers’ letter.

Suspicionless search policy

Before Baldwin’s Tuesday letter, CHCCS administrators have been able to request a suspicionless search of lockers, desks, book bags and other objects by trained dogs, according to school policy.

Searches had to be “minimally-intrusive and non-discriminatory,” the policy stated. Administrators had to demonstrate a need based on “a pattern of expectation of violence, drug activity or disruption” and provide written notice to students and parents of the school policy of general searches.

Dorosin, who is also an Orange County commissioner, was one of two attorneys whose employment was terminated by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights after the UNC Board of Governors in 2017 banned the center from taking legal action on behalf of poor and minority clients against other government entities, The News & Observer previously reported. The State Bar also ruled the center is not authorized to provide legal services.

He and attorney Elizabeth Haddix, whose employment was also terminated, created a nonprofit corporation called the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights to take on the 14 cases the UNC center was pursuing when the ban was approved. The Chambers Center is now the regional office for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In a phone interview, Dorosin said he and several parents were surprised to hear about the searches. and added, “We would hope that the town of Carrboro would not want the police used in that manner.”

Carrboro police spokesman Capt. Chris Atack said the department only responds to school administrators’ requests for searches. “It depends on the schools and what they want,” he said.

“For us,” said Nash the district spokesman, “the top priority is to make sure students and staff are safe.”

The Durham Public Schools does not use dogs to search students but does allow them to patrol the hallways and outside buildings, spokesman William “Chip” Sudderth said.

The CHCCS does not use dogs for patrols, Nash said

The Wake County school system did not respond to an email and phone call Wednesday asking about its policy on drug-sniffing dogs.

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Ashad Hajela reports on public safety for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He studied journalism at New York University.