Drug wars: Fluvanna students in crossfire?
This much the police, school administrators, and parents agree upon: No drugs were found in the April 23 lockdown of Fluvanna high and middle schools.
But stories of how the search with drug-sniffing dogs was carried out vary wildly. No students were searched and none were sniffed by dogs, say Fluvanna Sheriff Rylant Washington and Fluvanna school Superintendent Tom Smith.
That's not what one outraged parent heard from at least two students. They say their fellow students were sniffed by dogs and then searched, forced to remove jackets and outerwear and roll down the tops of their pants for inspection.
"I can tell you that's not true," says Sheriff Washington. "There were no students searched at all. Basically this was more of a building search of classrooms and lockers."
About 15 officers and six dogs from surrounding jurisdictions locked down Fluvanna High for about two hours, and followed up with an hour-plus search of Fluvanna Middle School.
"I can understand this at an inner city school that has gang violence and weapons," says a parent, who declines to be identified for fear of backlash against her son who attends the high school. "But the little county of Fluvanna does not have this problem to call in Gestapo force... The whole thing is chilling to me, the school having this much power over kids. They deserve to go to school without being terrorized."
This parent says her son arrived late on April 23 and was not allowed into the school. He told her the cops "looked really mean," and "he expressed concern about the dogs," she says.
"They looked like they could take you apart," the student told his mom.
The student, a junior, told the Hook, "I had two friends get searched. One had to flip his pants button over and take off his shoes. They took backpacks and desecrated them– tore [my friend's] up and threw it back to him. They weren't nice at all."
"My son doesn't make things up," says the concerned parent. She says an honor roll student told her the same story of kids being taken to a separate room and having to flip down the tops of their pants.
"I can tell you that did not take place," says Sheriff Washington, who was not present during the school searches.
"Whenever you do something like this, you're going to hear all sorts of rumors," he adds.
Albemarle County searches its middle and high schools with dogs at least once during the school year, using one of two methods. If the weather is nice, a fire drill may be called and all students go outside while dogs search the classrooms and halls, says Sgt. Duane Karr, who's in charge of school resource officers for the Albemarle police. In the other scenario, the school is locked down, and students remain in the classrooms while dogs sniff halls and lockers.
"I don't put students and dogs together," says Karr. He says that so far this year, the dog sniffing in Albemarle schools has turned up one book bag that at one time may have had an illegal substance in it, some discarded contraband, and one student who, when the dogs appeared, came forward and was arrested.
Karr says the sweeps of Albemarle schools take about 15 minutes, longer if something is found.
Fluvanna Superintendent Smith says principals requested the search last fall, and this was the first time it had been done in a couple of years. Smith wasn't aware of the search before it happened, but he went to the high school during the search and says it was done in an orderly and safe manner. "No child was searched," he declares. "I was told there were no body searches."
The search was done class by class. Students were escorted out of the classroom and asked to leave their book bags, Smith says.
He admits that Fluvanna doesn't really have a big drug problem, but has had a few incidents. "Part of the overall substance prevention program is to send a message this can happen. Don't do it," he says.
School administrators can conduct student searches based on a reasonable suspicion of drug use, a lower standard than the "probable cause" police must use.
Because of that latitude to search lockers, backpacks, and purses, ACLU executive director Kent Willis decries the school-wide searches.
"We find this to be a highly objectionable process and a circumvention of the Fourth Amendment," says Willis. "This is the worst kind of example to set for students, teaching them about the Fourth Amendment and using Gestapo tactics to lock down schools. It's a process of intimidation rather than learning, and parents should object."
In fact, the mother who objected to the search was shocked that more parents didn't share her outrage. "Some parents think it's okay to come into the school with guns and attack dogs," she laments.
"It scared everybody," says her son. After the search, he saw the usually boisterous middle school students on the bus. "They were all quiet," he says.
Fourth Amendment concerns aside, both Sheriff Washington and Superintendent Smith were pleased that the two schools came up clean, and Smith says most of the parents he spoke with were supportive of the search.
"We're not trying to step on anybody's rights," says Washington. "We're trying to provide a safe environment."