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Drug Searches Proposed for Costa Mesa Schools : Policy: Police suggest use of trained dogs to sniff out illegal substances. Newport-Mesa officials, however, want public input before adopting such a measure.

August 31, 1994|TOM RAGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Police are proposing to use dogs to sniff out illegal drugs at both city high schools this fall, a plan that would make the Newport-Mesa Unified School District the third in Orange County to employ the controversial tactic.

Trustees have not yet voted on the proposal, but at least three of the seven said they favor the approach, previously employed by the Orange Unified School District--which allowed dogs onto school buses in January, 1993--and Huntington Beach Union High School District, which still conducts searches on a random basis.

Some Newport-Mesa board members said they want to gauge public sentiment before adopting such a policy for Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools. The action was criticized by some students in the Orange and Huntington Beach school districts who believed it violated their rights against illegal searches and seizures.

"We'd do this as a preventive measure, not a gotcha measure," Newport-Mesa trustee Forrest K. Werner said. "I don't want to mislead the public into thinking we have a drug problem on our hands."

Board President Edward H. Decker said he supports the idea and would like the board to consider it in September, when the issue is expected to be formally scheduled for debate.

"I'm not afraid of having dogs come on campus," he said. "If we can do it in such a manner that it meets everybody's satisfaction, we certainly ought to consider it."

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A news conference has been scheduled for 10 a.m. today at the Costa Mesa Police Department to outline details of the program. A presentation on how the dogs sniff out drugs will also be given, said Nadine Wilck, a school district spokeswoman.

The idea was first suggested by Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden, who contacted school officials near the end of the last school year, when police were training their drug-sniffing dogs, trustees said. It was first revealed this week when police began making arrangements for the news conference.

Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor high schools would not be initially involved in the program, a decision that raised some questions.

"We have five high schools in the district," trustee Martha Fluor said. "And we're singling out Costa Mesa schools. These are questions that have to be answered." The fifth school, Monte Vista, an alternative high school in Costa Mesa, also would not be involved.

Trustee Roderick H. MacMillian said he favors the drug-sniffing measure, provided the search does not pose any physical risks to students. And Judith A. Franco, another trustee, stopped short of endorsing it, saying she and the community did not have enough information yet.

Searching for drugs inside schools is legal, provided it is not conducted in a manner that would violate students' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, said Julian Eule, an associate dean with the UCLA Law School.

"But even then, minors have (fewer) constitutional rights than full citizens and their rights are further constrained in the setting of the school system," he said.

"Basically, the schools are surrogate parents and have a great deal of leeway, but that doesn't mean they have free reign," he said. "And the irony is part of the reason they have that leeway is because the state doesn't want them to look, smell and taste like police officers."

Jim Staunton, the principal at Huntington Beach High School, said searches of lockers have been a success ever since the school implemented them in April last year.

"We've caught very few students with drugs and I think it's because of the dogs," he said. "The searches are random. We keep it secret."

Bob Lewis, principal for Orange High School, said the school allowed dogs to sniff certain students as they got off a school bus in January, 1993, but that was the last time they did it.

"We didn't find anything and I was happy that nobody was in possession--and to me that was a success," he said. "It was a kind of negative success, though. I'm not happy we did it, but we had to find out what was going on."

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Costa Mesa High School Principal Ed Harcharik said he endorses the use of the dogs if that is what it takes to stop students from trying drugs.

"Whatever the board decides, we'll support," he said. "We've had very few drug-related incidents or arrests, but it's just that drugs are available to kids and kids are always willing to take chances."

Estancia High School Principal Peggy Anatol declined to comment on the matter, saying she has been on the job just three weeks.

The Orange County Department of Education has no say in the matter and leaves it up to the 27 individual school districts in the county to decide whether they want to use the dogs, according to a spokeswoman.

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