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A high-tech hunt for school drugs

After a positive test, Hernando County schools look at buying a machine that is used at airports. Privacy issues are a concern.

Published September 8, 2006

BROOKSVILLE — Fresh from the war on terror, “puffer” technology designed to detect explosives at U.S. airports could soon be used to combat drugs in Hernando County schools.

Hernando school officials are looking at buying an Itemiser 3, which GE Security bills as a desktop system able to detect explosives and narcotics.

If the School Board approves the purchase, Hernando schools would be among the first in the nation to use the $50,000 machine.

District officials tested the machine in January and say they found traces of drugs — including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin — on the handles of classroom doors, student cars and lockers.

Officials say they would use the machine mainly to focus on drug education efforts. But positive tests would be investigated further.

“We’re not going after students,” said Barry Crowley, Hernando Schools security director. “We’re going after drugs on campus.”

Hernando students are among the state’s most vulnerable to drug use, according to surveys in which students detail their drug use habits.

In recent years the School Board has talked about performing drug tests and boosting its drug-education offerings. But those plans have often ground to a halt over questions of student privacy.

Courts have held that schools may test students for drugs if they’re involved in extracurricular activities, but may not randomly test all students. And they can’t search students unless they have a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use.

That’s where the new technology comes in.

The machine, GE says, is subtle enough to distinguish between strong and faint traces of drugs. A special cloth is passed over a surface and then inserted into the machine, which “puffs” the cloth for signs of drugs or explosives.

“You can do doorknobs, you can do lockers, you can do desktops or bookbags,” Crowley said. “It will tell you whether drugs have come in contact with that surface and at what level. If the drugs actually touched the desk, there would be a higher level of reading.”

A positive test alone would not be enough to make an arrest. Further investigation would be needed to link someone to illegal drugs.

In the January tests, officials swabbed 10 lockers at Central High School and came up with five hits for heroin, Crowley said. One was a handprint-type shape, and four were on the locks of adjacent lockers, as if someone were trying to open them.

They opened the lockers to test further, found nothing and went no further, Crowley said. None of the Hernando tests led to an arrest.

“We wiped the books down. We wiped down the insides of the locker,” he said. “Those kids never knew we were there.”

Out in the parking lot, three car door handles tested positive for methamphetamine and cocaine. Officials asked the students if they could search inside, and found no drugs inside the vehicles.

“There’s absolutely a deterrent effect,” Crowley said. “The kids at Central went nuts when they found out what we were doing.”

The machine also could be invaluable in helping officials learn which drugs are possibly being used in schools, and whether employees such as bus drivers are possibly using them, he said.

“It surprised me,” Crowley said. “I didn’t think it was going to be that good.”

He has proposed leasing a machine for $10,000 to try it out for a year, testing each building in the district monthly.

The School Board is expected to vote on whether to buy or lease the machine early next year.

The district will consider the legal implications before the board takes it up.

GE officials said both urban and rural districts are looking at the machine, and a school district in East Camden, N.J., purchased an earlier hand-held model.

“It’s really brand new to the school market,” said Ray Lauk, manager of education marketing for GE Security.

“The error rate is less than a 2 percent false-positive rate,” he said. “Poppy seeds do not set it off.” (Poppies are used in the manufacturing of opium.)

Lauk, a former Illinois school superintendent, said the technology would make it possible for school officials to make a historically messy process more precise.

“Our efforts in schools to keep them safe and drug free have largely been centered on contraband falling out of kids’ pockets, kids ratting out each other, rumors, luck,” he said. “We haven’t had a scientific way, an objective way to go in and combat drugs in schools until now. That’s what this does.”

Rebecca Steele, director of the Tampa office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new technology could pose new threats to student privacy, particularly if it registers a significant number of false alerts.

“Technology is making us rethink the Fourth Amendment,” she said. “It’s like Superman’s X-ray vision.”
But she added that schools might be within their rights to use the new technology in public places.

“You might not have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the handle of your locker,” Steele said. “If it’s really very reliable technology, I think it’s OK to test where students have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Kirsten Krienes, chairwoman of the School Advisory Committee at J.D. Floyd Elementary School in Spring Hill, said she could see the potential for such a device to be abused to conduct unlawful searches.

“How many people come in contact with a locker?” she asked.

But she said it could also deter students or staff from using drugs and help school officials target their efforts.

“I think a machine like that, if used and calibrated properly and not abused, would be an asset,” Krienes said.

“(But) I wouldn’t endorse it without knowing more about it.”

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (352) 848-1431.

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 22:33:09]

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