Drug Dogs Part II: Conversations with Students, Student Leaders, and Teachers

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John Hydrisko and Victoria Vale

During our research for this series on drug dogs, we interviewed students, student leaders, teachers, and administrators. Our conversations with administrators focused on the particulars of the program and on the decision to implement it. During interviews, Radnor administrators claimed that “almost everyone we’ve spoken to is in agreement with [the use of drug-sniffing dogs].”

Right now, Radnor administrators are reporting a sense of unanimity. Yet on the ground, different constituents within the school community hold legitimate concerns. We do not believe that the administration is suppressing dissent, but the institution has failed to effectively gauge public opinion. Rather than seeking the community’s input before making decisions, the administration acted unilaterally and broke the news to the community after the fact. Whether by calculation or coincidence, the declarative nature of this rollout limited opportunities to raise concerns and express disagreement.

To begin, disagreement is a good thing. Disagreement with a policy forces debate and yields better decision-making. Disagreement means that questions have been asked and answered—that concerns have been raised and addressed. And the fact of the matter is that there is disagreement; it just has not been public. The administration has facilitated several presentations on the drug dog program, but those events did not facilitate discussion. Many students, student leaders, and teachers are worried about the program, but their reservations have not reached the administration.

A program calling for the searching of students’ things can find its most natural opponent in the students themselves. This is not because a large number of students bring drugs to school, but because a large number of students value their privacy and hope their school will respect that privacy. One junior told us, “I’m not the type of person to use drugs—let alone bring them to school—but I still don’t like it.” We asked a senior why she was wary of searches if she had nothing to hide. She sort of laughed and said, “Don’t touch my s***.”

At Radnor, students enjoy a certain trust with their teachers and administrators. Any unreasonable infringement on privacy—an imposition that doesn’t seem proportionate to the issue—would serve to undermine that trust. We asked a junior how he felt about drug dogs; do they make him trust his school more or less? “When my school searches me with dogs it means my school trusts me less. When my school trusts me less, I trust my school less.” We asked a senior if he cared that some of his classmates might bring drugs to school. “No,” he said, “I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person, but I really just don’t care.” We asked him to elaborate. “It’s none of my business. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt, but from what I see, less people are using drugs this year than they were my freshman year. I don’t think it’s a big issue, and it’s certainly none of my business.” We asked him if his classmates’ drug use affected his education. “No, but dogs might.”

Teachers are a less-obvious source of dismay. In our interview, Mr. Bechtold said that no teachers have pushed back against the plan to use drug dogs. Private conversations with faculty, however, have shown that some teachers have reservations. One teacher said, “This will sound like fluff, but I’m a custodian of a certain learning environment, and these dogs aren’t going to help with that.” Another teacher explained that teachers and students have different legal rights in regards to searches. She pointed to her handbag, “That’s my property. If they asked to look at it, I’d ask to look at a warrant.”

Perhaps most-concerning is the self-censoring of student leaders. On Thursday the sixth, Mr. Bechtold met with student council for half an hour to explain the drug dog program. This presentation occurred in a mostly one-way format; its purpose was to inform student leaders of the program rather than assess their opinions of this issue. In turn, student leaders felt that sharing their thoughts was pointless—the decision was already made. One officer later remarked, “We were basically told that no matter what we thought or how many parents complained, this was going to happen.” Another officer considered the meeting “mostly for show, just a formality, something to check off.”

The Radnor community has not reached a consensus or an acceptable position for closing the debate—a debate that some would say never fully opened. Many students, student leaders, and teachers have legitimate concerns, and the purpose of this series is to make those concerns known. In less than a week we found a number of students and teachers whose reservations are just now being heard. These concerns are likely indicative of greater anxieties regarding personal rights and communal trust.

As two members of Radnor’s student body, we call on the District to reopen a more inclusive discussion on the drug dog program before the School Board votes on a contract with Interquest Detection Canines in May.