School denied sniffer-dog drug search

LANE NICHOLS
Last updated 05:00 30/09/2011

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Police are refusing to carry out random sniffer-dog drug searches at schools amid claims they are breaching pupils' civil rights.

The move follows legal advice from police lawyers, but principals say they have lost a vital tool in the fight against drugs.

Although schools admit the random searches may be illegal if they cannot show just cause, they want the practice to continue until the legality is tested in court.

Education Minister Anne Tolley said a law change might be needed, because it was wrong for the rights of one or two pupils to take precedence over the rights of the whole school community.

Pupils deserved to be safe in schools that were free of drugs and weapons. "The majority of parents want to know that their kids can go to school and they aren't being subjected to drugs, weapons, knife attacks – every step has to be taken to prevent that."

Draft search and seizure guides have just been issued, giving school staff powers to search pupils if safety is immediately threatened. Crown Law is also investigating possible law changes to protect teachers from being charged with assault or false imprisonment.

Police, meanwhile, are drafting a new national policy detailing when they can assist schools, but also appear to have stopped offering breathalysing services before school balls.

They will still help schools with searches but only when there is evidence of pupils carrying weapons or illicit drugs.

"Police are currently considering the legal implications regarding searches by drug dogs in schools," a spokeswoman said.

"Police understands the Ministry of Education is also working on good practice guidelines for schools so that they can search and confiscate items that may pose a safety risk."

She said police gave other support to schools, such as drug education, arranging counselling and prosecutions. "Where schools detect more serious drug offending, police become more actively involved."

Hutt Valley High School has historically had a police dog team conduct annual searches. But its request was refused this year "on the grounds that the police have no cause to search".

Principal Ross Sinclair said the searches were a valuable deterrent. They helped make the school safer and underlined its stance that drugs had no place in schools.

"The legal opinion will therefore remove this particular tactic from the range of steps available to us in promoting the anti-drug message."

Secondary Principals Association president Patrick Walsh – principal of John Paul College in Rotorua – said suspensions and standdowns for drug offences were on the rise, and more weapons were being brought into schools.

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It was unfortunate that police would now offer searches only if there was "reasonable suspicion that drugs are being peddled at the school". The searches should continue until their legality was tested in court or ministry lawyers ruled they were unlawful, he said.

"We haven't been able to give guarantees that our school is drug-free and weapons-free. The current law as it stands doesn't allow us to do that without some power of search."

Random drug searches 'offensive' to rights bill

Conducting blanket drug searches of schoolchildren without reasonable cause is discriminatory and a breach of the Bill of Rights Act, a civil liberties lawyer says.

"No other New Zealand citizens are subject to the same intrusive search criteria," lawyer Michael Bott said.

"You just can't impinge upon a citizen's ... rights unless you have true and justified grounds."

Mr Bott said innocent pupils were routinely singled out for random drug searches, which were "deemed OK by virtue of their age and the fact that they're compelled to attend the school".

"Most citizens would not be prepared to accept random searching at will by police. It's offensive to the Bill of Rights Act to have random searching without proper cause."

He said Education Minister Anne Tolley's fear about the rights of one or two individuals taking precedence over the rights of the entire school community to feel safe was a "shallow" approach. "We're talking about the right of every child to be free from unreasonable search and seizure."

- The Dominion Post

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