Hawaii school board favors locker searches
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By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
The state Board of Education last night moved a step closer toward approving a controversial proposal to allow suspicionless searches of student lockers on public school campuses solely at the discretion of principals and school administrators.
The board voted 11-1 to allow locker searches "with or without cause," but added a clause that said searches may not be discriminatory.
The policy would take effect following public hearings and a final board vote and if approved by Gov. Linda Lingle.
Last night's decision at the board's meeting on Moloka'i reversed an earlier decision by a board committee to allow searches of student lockers only if there is suspicion of contraband, such as weapons or drugs.
Meanwhile, as a part of the same vote, the board approved the presence of drug-sniffing dogs on school campuses as a way to detect and deter illegal drugs.
The decision was part of the board's approval of sweeping revisions to Chapter 19, the state law governing student conduct and discipline. The board wrestled for months mainly over a small section of the statute that outlines policy on search and seizures.
Last night the board amended the policy to state that locker searches would be allowed "anytime with or without cause, provided that such a search is not because of the student's race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex (including gender identity and expression), religion, disability or sexual orientation."
The lone "no" vote was cast by board member Kim Coco Iwamoto. Board member Cec Heftel did not attend the meeting.
Over the past several months, board members were split between those who supported widening the search and seizure powers of school administrators and those who were worried about infringing upon student privacy rights.
"I think we all don't want drugs on campus, but we're divided about how we should go about doing it," said board Chairwoman Karen Knudsen, who had reservations about suspicionless locker searches.
Last month, during a meeting of the special programs committee, Knudsen proposed removing the "without reason or cause" language from the policy in order to preserve student privacy rights. Her motion was supported in committee in a 5-4 vote.
"I didn't like 'without cause' and what that would imply," Knudsen said. "I think there are deep philosophical differences on this issue."
The disciplinary code already allows principals to search lockers if they suspect the health and safety of students are in danger. However, some board officials said the widened searches would give principals the authority they need to keep drugs and weapons out of schools.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i, argued the proposed rules would be an undue intrusion on student privacy.
Board of Education member Mary Cochran, the most vocal supporter of the drug-detection canines and locker searches, said the board has been advised by the state attorney general's office to approve the "without reason or cause" searches of lockers.
"It's nice to talk about privacy rights and suspicion, but the reality is, when you get to campuses and talk to kids and principals, drugs are there," Cochran said.
Cochran admitted that the board has been warned by the ACLU and other legal experts that approval of the suspicionless locker searches could be an invitation for lawsuits.
"We probably will be tested, but with the advice of counsel — the attorney general's office, actually — they say it is defendable. They are ready to defend that language," she said.
Board members are generally united on the presence of drug-sniffing dogs on school campuses.
In fact, earlier this year, three Maui district schools — Lahainaluna High School, Lahaina Intermediate School and Lana'i High & Elementary School — participated in a pilot program in which specially trained dogs were used to detect drugs, alcohol and guns.
Two O'ahu private schools, Saint Louis and Academy of the Pacific, have also used drug-sniffing dogs for several years.
Whitney White, owner of Interquest Detection Canines of Hawaii, the private company that conducted the dog searches as a part of the pilot project, has appeared several times before board members to urge her support of the dog proposal.
The board recently, as a part of its fiscal year 2008-2009 supplemental budget, requested $300,000 from the state Legislature to fund a "drug prevention program utilizing drug-sniffing dogs."
Reach Loren Moreno at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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