Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Going To The Dogs

Southern Arizona School Districts Hound Students In The War On Drugs.

By Tim Vanderpool

MAY 24, 1999:  NO MATTER HOW you cut it, Rudy is having one hell of a day. After sniffing out 12 grams of hash in the Sierra Vista School District's orderly offices, the enormous dog now careens, nose held high, through a stern gauntlet of children's lockers.

Those squat metal boxes stand in blunt contrast to a cheery bulletin board and bright posters dotting the walls, displaying wobbly, fledgling script and fliers for a coming poetry festival. But they're the perfect foil for Rudy, a dark brown bullet of rippling muscle and single-minded devotion.

Even in this bastion of relative innocence, his business is deadly serious. And his yelps, snorts and yowls are becoming the sounds of the Drug War as it's being waged in Arizona's borderland schools.

Never mind that the hash was stashed by Rudy's U.S. Customs Service handlers. Or that today's search, part of a "deterrent" policy in the district's two middle schools and high school, has turned up little more than a gaggle of wary kids and curious teachers. To the exuberant Belgian malinois with a precision snout and a mastodon's build, this is living very large indeed.

To Gary Garrison, the equally determined substance abuse prevention coordinator for the Sierra Vista district, the animal represents an opportunity to squash drug problems before they take root. "Customs' dogs are utilized here for two reasons," he says. "One, it allows them to be trained in different settings. So when they come here, they're not coming strictly to canvass the school for drugs. And it's also a deterrence factor for the students."

The dog teams can arrive at anytime, typically at the request of an administrator, but unannounced to the kids. "If the principals feel that there's some activity going on in the school system, and they might want to wake up the students, they can call me," he says.

In turn, Garrison summons the Customs canine corps. "But we never search a student one-on-one with the dogs," he says. "Most of the time, we do the locker areas and the school property. Then, if the dog hits on something that belongs to a student, we immediately leave that area with the dogs, and turn it over to the administrators."

This civilian hand-off keeps the process legal, in light of court restrictions on police activity in schools. "The big thing we're concerned with is making sure students' rights aren't violated," he says. "We've gone extremely out of our way to make sure that doesn't happen.

"If a student comes out of a classroom during a search, we immediately stop the dogs, and ask the student to go back in the classroom. We don't let the dog even get close to them. That way, the students' rights are maintained.

"I think its a good deterrent," he says, "especially when we do the outer perimeter of the schools."

Garrison isn't alone in his perspective. Customs dog teams are currently used in border-region districts ranging from Douglas to Yuma. Down to a person, administrators contacted consider the canine visits an integral psychological tool, aimed at keeping their schools free of narcotics. It's also cheap: Conducted under Customs' dog-training umbrella, searches don't cost those districts a dime.

"We use the dogs in the locker areas and parking lots to let students know we're not going to tolerate drugs on campus," says Raul Bejarano, superintendent of Nogales schools. "We've taken kind of a severe approach to it because we don't want our kids to be tempted. It's a message to them, and it's a message to the drug dealers not to use our kids, because they're going to be caught."

At the same time, officials like Bejarano report few if any drug interdictions resulting from the searches.

Therein lies a crucial point, says Kris Bosworth, a professor in the UA College of Education, and a recognized authority on scholastic drug prevention policies. She says school administrators too often combine the best of intentions with worst of strategies. "One of the things that happens when a school elects to bring in the police, or that kind of thing, is that it gives a very negative message to the students. It says that we don't trust them, and that there's something going on that's wrong."

While scare tactics might keep some kids from using drugs or bringing them to school, "That doesn't last very long. Any kind of fear approach is not a long-lasting approach. Instead, it just gives kids a challenge to see if they can beat the system."

Others say using drug dogs in school threatens Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure.

"We're very, very concerned about it, especially under the circumstances where there is no individualized suspicion," says Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union. "Interestingly enough, courts are mixed--and it boggles my mind that this is the case--about whether or not a dog sniff is a search.

"I know when we dealt with this issue in California, the court acknowledged that it was search. In fact, we reached a settlement with a school district that was proposing to bring them in."

Whether or not it's legal in the strictest constitutional sense, when Customs officials enter schools, "they still maintain the character of law enforcement," Eisenberg says. "It's very frightening. One wonders about the learning environment that's created."

Jose Baeza has seen two of his kids graduate from Sierra Vista's high school, and still has a daughter in the ninth grade. While his daughter doesn't seem bothered by the dogs, he doesn't share her apathy. "I think it tells the kids we don't trust them," says Baeza, a computer programmer at nearby Fort Huachuca. "I really feel like it's an erosion of civil rights, akin to drug profiling in airports, or in car searches. And I don't think anything precipitated it here. I think the district just decided to do it."

But when asked, he can't think of any other Sierra Vista parents who agree with him.

All of which, of course, means little to Rudy. His hallway run has turned up nothing, except for a slight, wide-eyed girl who inadvertently wandered from her classroom. In a flash, the dog was corralled to one end of the hall, where he stood panting as Garrison herded the girl back to her room.

Now he's outdoors, where his spirits are soaring after discovering another hash pouch, again planted by his handlers for that very reason. This time it was placed among lockers stretching in tidy rows beneath a fenced ramada. While handler Mike Litwin races to keep up, hollering encouragement from behind dark sunglasses, the dog dashes about in ecstatic overdrive. His pink tongue hangs like a dripping slab of bacon, his sides heaving with effort.

"He just loves this stuff," Litwin says. "For him, it's all just playtime."

School Counselor Dom Sette watches from the sidelines, his crossed arms partially covering a necktie dotted with apples and childlike faces. When asked about the effect these canine visits have on children, he doesn't pause to answer, "I think this is a prudent response, and is sending the right message. And parents have been supportive of it."

Gary Garrison is also monitoring the action. He says students don't get upset, since they were familiarized with the dogs through presentations last fall, just before the program began. Though these searches haven't resulted in any busts--and he says he's glad of that--there have been close calls. "We've had some hits where the dog has gone nutso. We felt strongly that there was something there."

Meanwhile, he says the children have accepted this modern reality with their usual pre-adolescent aplomb. "All the doors in all the buildings have windows in them. So if we're inspecting lockers, it doesn't take long for one kid to look out in the hallway and see a four-legged friend walking by."

As for their response, "It's almost always positive," Garrison says. "Oh, one student did tell me, 'I know it's a bad state of affairs that you have to bring dogs into the schools.' Then on the same note, he said, 'I understand, because we have shootings in other parts of the country. So it's not that I'm upset,' he told me. 'It's the times we live in that bother me.' "

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