NEWS

Cohasset School Committee: Searches not OK

Nancy White

Trained police canines sniffing for banned substances like marijuana or alcohol will not be conducting any sweeps of school property in the near future. 

After a lengthy discussion between the school committee, school administration, police department and members of the public on proposed changes to the Memorandum of Understanding, the school-police cooperation agreement, the school committee reached a stalemate. 

Two members of the committee were against the amendments and two were in favor. Committee member Lucia Flibotte was not present at the meeting. 

This was the second discussion, the first was held in June, the School Committee has had about canine searches.  

High School administration and the police department have been collaborating for the past few months to come up with specific changes to the Memorandum of Understanding that they felt would strengthen the two entities’ cooperation and make the schools a safer place. 

“We can do a better job and this is a way to make our school safer,” said Mike Gill, assistant principal of the high school. 

There were three amendments to the Memorandum of Understanding suggested by the school administration and the police department. First, they wanted to establish an agreement where there would be year-round cooperation and communication between the two town departments. Second, they wanted to collaborate on a school safety plan and drug-free initiative, which may include the use of canine searches during the school year. And last, to make clear in the language the two-way reporting between the schools and the police department of reportable acts. 

The majority of the discussion centered on the possibility of trained police canines searching the school for illegal substances, like alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. 

School Committee member Helene Lieb cited a letter she and other committee members received after last June’s initial discussion from high social studies teacher, Jack Buckley. In the letter, which Lieb read aloud excerpts, he strongly opposed the use of canine searches because, he believed, it would have a damaging effect on the positive relationship between the students and the police that currently exists. Through Buckley’s “Introduction to Law” class police officers come to the school to talk about their role as law enforcers and in the community at large. 

Also opposing the institution of random canine sweeps was resident Peggy Chapman of 25 Virginia Lane. As a nurse who works with adolescents she said she has had several patients who have had negative and, what she perceived as uneven, consequences following school canine searches in other school districts. 

“(With the canine searches) you are bringing in the enforcer in a big way,” Chapman said. “This is a line I really prefer we don’t cross.”

On the other side of the coin, School Committee member Paul Schubert said from a parental perspective he saw the canine searches as a good thing. “As a parent, this is a means to screen and prevent drugs and alcohol from entering our schools.”

Schubert said if the searches could prevent one accident from occurring it would be worth it, adding in a public building and a school the expectation of privacy is different than on the street or in your home. 

School Committee chair Adrienne MacCarthy also supported the institution of canine searches as means to help ensure all kids can learn in a safe and drug-free environment, “it is sad to think of a kid who has to think about going to the bathroom because there might be a drug deal going on in there…we’re trying to make this a community for everyone.”

Lieb and School Committee vice chair Alfred Slanetz, wanted more information about how the searches would be conducted and the consequences for students caught with drugs or alcohol on school property. 

School administration said there had been no specific instance or spike in drug activity, but that it was present on the campus. High school assistant principal Gill said the request for canine searches were part of an overall review of the safety manual. 

Gill disagreed that the canine searches would be a detriment to the relationship between the students and police. 

“The same police officers coming into the building to talk to students are coming in to make this building as safe as possible,” Gill said. “I think the kids would not be bothered by the canine searches, on the contrary I think they would be very interested in the process.”

Lieutenant Greg Lennon said the canine searches were a way for the schools and police to be pro-active in their approach toward becoming a drug-free school.

“The way the school is handling (alcohol and drug) issues right now unfortunately is reactive because there is no a way for the schools to be proactive. We are willing to supply the tool to keep the schools drug-free and take a proactive approach in making sure no drugs are brought into the school,” Lennon said. He assured the School Committee they would not be using “heavy handed tactics” and the use of canines was not a way to “menace people.”

Area school districts such as Hingham, Scituate and Marshfield are already using drug-sniffing canines as a means to keep schools safe and drug-free. 

When the issue came to a vote, two were for the changes to the Memorandum of Understanding (MacCarthy and Schubert) and two were against (Lieb and Slanetz). 

With the split vote on the issue, no action can be taken at this time and will remain in place without the proposed amendments. The Memorandum of Understanding is an agreement between the Superintendent of Schools, with the support of the School Committee, and the Police Chief, with the support of the Board of Selectmen.   

The School Committee could take up the issue in the future and revisit their position.

Contact Nancy White at nwhite@cnc.com.