PORTLAND – School officials will consider a proposal by police and the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to allow police dogs to sniff for drugs in school lockers and parking lots.

Portland’s three high schools now have no provision for allowing the searches. The school board received the request Tuesday but has not taken action on it, said Superintendent James Morse.

Drug-sniffing dogs have been used in about a dozen high schools in southern Maine, coordinated by Law Enforcement Dogs of Maine, which sees it as valuable training for the dogs.

Portland police Lt. Janine Roberts said the goal of the program would be to keep schools safe by reducing the presence of illegal drugs.

Civil liberties groups object, saying the searches treat all students as potential suspects without reason for suspicion.

The plan discussed by school administrators and Portland police would let drug-sniffing dogs occasionally inspect lockers or cars. If a dog detected the presence of drugs, a second dog would be brought in to confirm the presence before school officials checked for contraband. Students would remain in their classrooms during a search.

Morse said his administration has not yet taken a position on the proposal, which has been discussed previously but not adopted.

“It will be an important conversation for the community to have,” Morse said, noting that in the past, some people have been strongly supportive of the searches and others have opposed them.

The discussion is not a response to any particular problem at Portland schools, though Morse said it would be naive to assume the schools are immune to the drug issues that affect other parts of the city.

Morse said drug-sniffing dogs were used in the Messalonskee school district, where he was superintendent before he came to Portland, and served as a successful deterrent. He said the searches never turned up any drugs.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said broad-based searches of students’ property is a bad practice and fails to help students understand the importance of their civil rights.

“Such a policy would treat every student as a suspect without suspicion or evidence they’ve done anything wrong,” Bellows said. “Students have a constitutional right to be free from illegal search and seizure. Schools should teach students about constitutional rights, not subject them to random, unwarranted searches.”

School districts in southern Maine that have allowed searches by dogs speak highly of them and say they have been found legal by the courts.

“We are responsible for the security and the safety of the student population, and case law really clearly indicates the level of reasonable suspicion for a school is much lower than for law enforcement,” said Windham High School Assistant Principal Kelli Deveaux. The school holds two to six searches a year, she said.

Any student caught with illegal drugs is suspended for about 10 days for the first offense and can be expelled for a second offense, she said.

Dean Auriemma, principal at Scarborough High School, where the searches are allowed, said, “You do the cars and some of the lockers because you want to let not just students, but teachers and the public, know you’re taking proactive steps to do things to limit the things society is throwing at you.”

Auriemma noted that the parking lot searches do not distinguish between vehicles of students and staff members.

Morse said the proposal for Portland may be sent to a school board subcommittee as early as next week for further study. 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]