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Car Searches A Surprise To 2 Trustees Board Members Question Fairness Of Police Action At High School

Sat., March 30, 1996

As drug dogs sniffed out a few grams of marijuana in the high school parking lots two weeks ago, school officials said the drug bust had the full support of the school board.

This week, however, at least two board members disputed whether the search of 600 cars was fair.

Ken Burchell, a school trustee, said he recalled approving a drug search of school lockers - not cars.

“We don’t own the cars,” Burchell explained Friday. “For me, personally, it makes me much more uncomfortable and makes me wonder about due process…warrantless searches, probable cause. All those issues for me become much more difficult.”

When dogs alerted their handlers to a car smelling like contraband, the police asked the student driver to sign a consent form to search the car.

Police said they had 60 warrants “prepared” in the event the students did not sign the consent forms. The warrants still needed the approval of a judge.

Some students complained that they felt coerced into signing the forms, though police and school administrators said students were informed of their constitutional rights.

At a school board meeting earlier this week, board member Jane Curtis questioned the fairness of searching cars.

“The only students subjected to this were over 16-year-old drivers,” she said.

Capt. Carl Bergh said the police had information that the drug problem revolved around vehicles. Students use drugs in the parking lot, or while out driving during lunch, he said.

Another reason for not searching lockers was the danger some of the dogs posed to students. Students would have been forced to remain in class during the locker search, he said.

Burchell requested copies of the minutes where the board authorized the search. He thought the discussion occurred in open session.

The outspoken Burchell was ousted from the board chairmanship earlier this year by a vote of the other board members, except Curtis.

A review of the written minutes from all board meetings in 1995 - when the approval was reportedly given - revealed no mention of drug searches.

School superintendent Doug Cresswell recalled that the discussion occurred behind closed doors in executive session. No minutes are kept for those meetings.

“There was not a formal motion or formal action, but there was enthusiastic support from all our board members,” Cresswell said Friday. “My recollection was the discussion did probably center around lockers more than car searches.”

Cresswell and school attorney Charles Dodson said the topic could be discussed in closed session because it involved the potential for litigation.

The open meetings law allows a governing body to hold a closed meeting “to consider and advise its legal representatives on pending litigation or where there is a general public awareness of probable litigation.”

Technically, the school board did not have to authorize the drug search, however.

The board sets policy, such as prohibiting drugs from the school grounds, and the administration enforces that policy, said Vern Newby, chairman of the school board.

Newby said he had no qualms about searching students’ cars.

, DataTimes


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