Arrow-right Camera


Cops, Drug Dogs Hit High Schools Some Angry, Others Pleased As Teams Check More Than 600 Cars

Sat., March 16, 1996

A surprise drug bust at the two Coeur d’Alene high schools Friday resulted in eight misdemeanor drug arrests and one felony drug arrest, all involving marijuana.

The searches were met with outrage and appreciation among students and parents.

Eight drug-sniffing dogs examined more than 600 cars at the two high schools, alerting their handlers to suspicious smells in 65 cases - including one teacher’s car.

No drugs were found in a search of the teacher’s car.

“Today was a report card with an A on it for both high schools,” said Coeur d’Alene Police Capt. Carl Bergh, who praised students for their courtesy in the circumstances.

Half the students questioned admitted that drugs had been in their vehicles, Bergh said.

Others either denied it or were innocent.

Olivia Sementi, a junior at Lake City High, was getting ready to sing a solo in chorus when a school administrator pulled her out of class to have her Volkswagen bug searched.

“I’ve never smoked anything in my life,” Sementi said. “I’m not really mad, just offended. I understand they need to keep drugs out of school, but my privacy was attacked.”

Because the doors to her old car don’t lock, Sementi stood by for a half hour as police searched, fearful that perhaps someone had stashed their drugs in her car.

The straight-A student returned to class to sing her solo in a quavering voice.

Rachel Cleavinger came home from Coeur d’Alene High School in tears a half hour before she was to interview with Coeur d’Alene Junior Miss judges at The Coeur d’Alene Resort.

“It’s been a nightmare today,” said Rhonda Williams, her mother.

Cleavinger’s car was searched thoroughly after a drug dog scratched the paint on the door in its excitement, Williams said. After turning the contents upside down, police found only an herbal remedy for dieters.

“The cops totally thrashed her car,” Williams said.

Students were not allowed to leave class, except to change classes, while the searches were conducted. Dogs from the Idaho State Police, Rathdrum police, and Kootenai, Bonner and Shoshone county sheriffs’ departments were used.

Coeur d’Alene police were armed with 60 search warrants in the event students did not give permission to search their vehicles.

Only one student refused, Bergh said. Because the dog used in that case was from a different county, the police did not have jurisdiction to issue a warrant, he said.

The operation did not elicit an outcry of injustice from Jack Van Valkenburgh, director of Idaho’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

“Assuming their warrants were valid, I would have no strong objections to this search, if there was real evidence that there was a substantial drug problem at the school,” he said.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas defended the operation in an afternoon news conference, saying it was limited in scope and limited in intrusion.

During lunch, several students wandered into the parking lot at Coeur d’Alene High, while teachers stood guard at cars that had been marked in bright orange numbers.

Reactions were mixed.

“I don’t care,” said student Justin Hollis as he headed toward his Jeep, which had orange numbers written on the windshield. “There’s nothing in my car.”

Hollis filled out a consent form, then was released when police found nothing.

“I don’t think it’s right for cops getting to go in schools and search their lockers, cars and stuff,” said Gus Chicks, a sophomore. “I don’t think it will prevent it in the future.”

Coeur d’Alene senior Chris Towery said it’s not uncommon for students to come to school stoned or drunk.

“I’m glad they’re doing something about the problem. I don’t think people understand how serious it is,” he said. “The drug problem has consistently gotten worse since I was a freshman.”

Although the school district did not conduct a student drug survey last year, the 1994 survey showed an increase in drug use, especially among younger students.

Coeur d’Alene police made 258 felony drug arrests in 1995, a 2.5 percent increase from the previous year, Douglas said.

One Lake City High freshman said Friday that when it comes to marijuana, LSD or methamphetamine, anyone at school can get hold of it.

“The availability is like it’s never been before,” confirmed Norm Mahoney, Coeur d’Alene schools drug education coordinator. “It’s a serious situation and we need to use everything in our disposal.”

But, he added, “doing something like this does not help us stop our young people from using drugs. What is does is hopefully keep them from bringing it on campus.”

Friday’s search was a first time for the Coeur d’Alene School District. Shoshone and Boundary counties’ schools conducted drug searches recently, and the Bonner County School District uses random searches regularly.

Drug dogs have not been used in Spokane School District, said Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth.

But one idea floated by a district committee studying drug policy is to loan schools to police in the evening for training drug-sniffing dogs. The idea will be considered by the school board next month.

Doug Cresswell, Coeur d’Alene schools superintendent, said the district had no specific plans for searching lockers or middle schools.

“The message we’re trying to send is that this could happen any time,” he said.

The administration was urged to take strong action by some parents alarmed at the extent of drug use among teenagers.

Corky Hughes was one of those parents. He figures students should learn that using drugs has consequences.

“My son was caught (with tobacco). I’m happy. I couldn’t be happier,” said Hughes. “This is a gutsy move for the administration. They’re going to take a lot of heat for this.” The students charged Friday can be tried as adults under Idaho law because they were caught in a drugfree school zone. The felony arrest, for dealing marijuana, carries a possible penalty of seven years in prison.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

Click here to comment on this story »