Drug-sniffing police dogs might still turn up at Amity schools. But they won't be turning out students' pockets.
After an hour of heated debate, a sharply divided Amity Board of Education fell short of the votes needed for a revision that would have given dogs direct access to students across The vote was an exact tie of 6-6 -- but advocates would have needed a majority to put it into effect.
Superintendent John Brady said he was content with the result, despite the split.
"I think we have what we need in terms of the existing policy," said Brady.
Amity's current policy allows for drug-sniffing dogs to search students' lockers, cars and backpacks as long as students are not present. The measure would have allowed dogs to directly sniff students' persons, potentially alerting authorities to students carrying drugs.
"The Last Thing We Need is An Outbreak to Occur"
Before the vote, the board heard from student representative Thomas Falcigno, who spoke in favor of the measure.
"At the end of the day, Amity students don't want to attend a school where drugs plague the halls," said Falcigno. "The last thing we need is an outbreak to occur."
Falcigno cited a poll on the student government's web site showing student support for allowing police dogs greater access. He told the board most students he'd spoken to supported the measure.
Board member Tracy Lane Russo commended Falcigno.
"I'm at a loss as to why this is such a difficult decision to make," she said. "The students are saying, 'I'm not afraid of it because I'm not doing it.' … Bring it on. [Falcigno] clearly said things members of our board didn't want to hear. I was surprised by it, but I'm proud of him, and I'm proud of the students."
Supporters framed the measure as necessary to curb what could be an emerging drug problem at schools. Board member Steven DeMaio, who supported the measure, recounted a story from a security guard he met at an athletic event.
"He said to me, kids come right up to him and say, 'We're not stupid,'" said DeMaio. "'We know dogs can't go anywhere near us. So we carry drugs on us.'"
"It's Disturbing to Me on a Whole Host of Levels"
Opponents framed the vote as a choice between security and freedom.
"The idea we'd operate a school whose purpose is to educate our children, and do it in an environment where we're going to sanction and endorse the use of dogs … it's frightening to me," said board member Jim Horwitz. "It's disturbing to me on a whole host of levels. And one doesn't have to go back too far in history to understand why. Or just turn on the television to understand why."
False positives -- dogs pinpointing students who don't actually have any drugs -- are another potential problem. Critics point to studies showing false positives may make up the majority of "finds." (Proponents say these false positives may be a sign of leftover drug residue.)
Dr. Brady told Patch the district has only brought in drug-sniffing dogs twice in the nearly six years since they were first allowed -- and came up empty both times, pinpointing property belong to numerous students, but finding no actual drugs.
"We've actually experienced the degree of false-positive alerting brought up in the meeting," said Brady. "And with that degree, I'm concerned students who are totally not involved with drugs would be targeted ... I like the idea of a shift in emphasis away from policing measures toward looking at it as a health issue."
Parents, Advocates Speak Out
A group of Amity High parents addressed the board before the vote, mostly voicing opposition.
"My takeaway is, students are very concerned about drug use," said Sheila McCreven. "I'm a bit concerned to hear the students [Falcigno] spoke with are not perceiving their constitutional rights to be in any kind of jeopardy. But I think that might be an opportunity for further education. Maybe your civics classes ... can do a better job of explaining to kids what is meant by search and seizure, and probable cause."
McCreven is the mother of two Amity High students and a member of the Woodbridge Board of Education.
"It's virtually certain students will be falsely accused and subject to searches for no reason," said Woodbridge parent Sandra Walling. "And students will be afraid. And students will be humiliated."
Orange parent Brad Marcus supported the measure.
"I'm all for having dogs come in," he said. "I think it's a terrific thing both to catch kids who have it and as a deterrent."
How Board Members Voted
In Favor (drug-sniffing dogs should be allowed)
- Christopher Browe (Orange)
- Diane Crocco (Orange)
- Steven DeMaio (Orange)
- Thomas Hurley (Orange)
- Tracey Lane Russo (Orange)
- James Sterling (Bethany)
Opposed (drug-sniffing dogs should not be allowed)
- Julie Altman (Woodbridge)
- William Blake (Bethany)
- Patricia Cardozo (Woodbridge)
- Sue Cohen (Orange)
- Rita Gedansky (Woodbridge)
- James Horwitz (Woodbridge)