Who let the dogs out -- and into the schools?
Time and again this year, drug-sniffing dogs showed up at Grand Island High School for sweeps. They sniffed lockers and cars and even nosed up and down classroom aisles searching the students themselves for drugs.
Lockport High School brought the dogs in, too. They swept through lockers and classrooms before zeroing in on some marijuana stashed under a bathroom sink.
Lancaster High School called the dogs in twice within five weeks this spring. The first time, the dogs led officers to a locker where marijuana was found, leading to the arrest of a 16-year-old student.
The second time, the dogs sniffed backpacks, purses and books, too.
"We just want to send a strong message to kids," said Lancaster Principal Daniel Paveljack. The sweeps were the first ever for the high school -- one of the area's largest, with 1,750 students. "We're not going to tolerate drugs."
Students across the Buffalo Niagara region just finished a year that saw an unprecedented level of security and scrutiny in their schools. Some were required to use key cards to get in the front door, and others were asked to wear identification badges.
There were cameras in the halls and cafeterias, more security guards, and a rising number of arrests for threats made by students, whether serious or idle.
But an increasing number of suburban students also found themselves in lockdown mode as teams of drug-sniffing dogs, many trained by the Erie County Sheriff's Department or Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, as well as local departments, swept their schools to hunt for narcotics.
The NFTA alone, which just started doing the sweeps three years ago, says it has been involved in about 25 sweeps in a dozen or so schools this year.
"And as time goes on, we'll proably be doing more," said NFTA canine officer Kevin Koscielniak.
School officials say the searches are mostly used as a reminder of zero-tolerance policies, and are not usually prompted by reports of drugs on campus. In fact, usually the dogs don't find anything.
Drug use is largely down or leveling off, officials note -- despite a few arrests this year. Still, in some districts there are reports of increased marijuana use.
And some students don't seem to mind the searches and even credit them with keeping drugs out of their schools.
"There used to be a lot (of drugs), but kids don't bring it to school as much because they started bringing dogs in," said Ryan Snyder, a junior at Williamsville South High School.
"I don't personally find the dogs an invasion of privacy, but I know that some other kids do, said one senior at Grand Island High School. "Those are usually the ones doing something."
School officials also say parents aren't complaining.
"Parents want it," said James Brotz, principal of West Seneca West High School, which called the dogs in three times last year and once this year.
But the local American Civil Liberties Union is concerned about whether the dogs breach Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search. As the practice becomes more routine, it continues to monitor the situation.
"These are basically fishing expeditions," said Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, executive director of the Western Region office of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "If they brought drug-sniffing dogs into an office complex, there would be an awful lot of objections."
The Buffalo School District does not use dogs. It regards the practice as ineffective, contending students are too savvy now to keep drugs in lockers, where authorities most commonly look. What's more, the searches are disruptive because students are confined to the classrooms, and, said Security Director William Jackson, it's legally questionable if the students themselves can be searched.
In fact, bringing drug-sniffing dogs into schools has sparked controversy elsewhere in the country, with critics saying the practice is too militaristic and smacks of police-state tactics that have no business in schools.
The ACLU filed suit in New Mexico last month after a student was allegedly bitten by a drug dog.
In general, the federal courts have ruled that the use of dogs to sniff lockers, personal possessions and even cars in school parking lots is constitutional, said Karl Kristoff of Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear, a Buffalo law firm that represents several local school districts.
The federal circuit courts, however, are split on whether allowing dogs to sniff students themselves is constitutional, he said.
There are other problems.
For instance, Lancaster learned the hard way that mistakes get made when it conducted its first sweep April 27.
The dogs zeroed in on three lockers that Friday. One contained marijuana, and an 11th-grade boy was charged with possession.
In the other two lockers, police found what they thought might be Ecstasy, a designer drug that is starting to show up in the region.
Town police immediately conducted a chemical analysis and determined the substances were narcotics. The students were suspended for five days.
But when both substances were tested by the Central Police Service laboratory in Buffalo a short time later, the results were negative.
Paveljack said he called the students and parents immediately to explain -- and apologize. He also sent letters of apology and expunged the students' records of any mention of the suspensions.
One student was back in class by the next Monday; the other, whose test came back later, was in school two days after that.
"I regret it got as far as it did," Paveljack said. "But we had two dogs verifying and a chemical analysis. I had enough probable cause."
Incidents cause concern
While drugs have leveled off in schools, officials said, students say that in addition to marijuana, they have no trouble buying almost any drug -- from PCP and Ecstasy to hallucinogens such as LSD and mushrooms.
"I can smell marijuana sometimes," said Stacy Lawkowski, 17, a senior at Lancaster High School.
"You can smell it in the halls sometimes," added a junior from Williamsville South High School.
There have been a number of drug-related arrests in suburban schools this year -- sometimes startling.
In the Town of Tonawanda, for example, police earlier this year arrested two 10-year-olds for giving pills filled with Benadryl to a 5-year-old and 7-year-old at Holmes Elementary School.
The 5-year-old consumed the pill and was hospitalized. The 10-year-old boys had gotten the pills from the home of a Tonawanda woman, Karen M. Johnson of 105 Roswell Ave., who also gave one of them marijuana, police said. The pills contained a muscle enhancer, which the boys removed and replaced with Benadryl, police said.
They were charged with endangering the welfare of a child and are under probationary supervision. Johnson was charged with the same crime, but the charges will be dismissed if she stays out of trouble for six months, authorities said.
Detective Donald Dinmick, of the Town of Tonawanda Police juvenile unit, said the boys are likely the youngest he has arrested on drug charges.
Last month, two students at Kenmore West High School were charged with possession of LSD. A Kenmore East teenager reported a fellow student to school officials for selling drugs, and later told police he was beaten up by that student for telling.
Officials say that as long as such incidents continue, they will use all legal means to make schools drug-free, including the routine use of dog patrols.
"When you look at the things that have happened, you don't want to take any chances," said Sloan Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski.
And school officials think parents will continue to support them. As one Lancaster father of two points out, many of today's parents grew up in the 1970s and 1980s -- the first decades when narcotics were widely accessible to youths.
Even if they didn't use drugs, these parents probably knew someone who did and saw the wreckage that resulted.
"We went through it," said Rick Foley, a Lancaster School Board member and father of a high school senior and a seventh-grader. "We grew up with it. We know it's wrong. We learned our lesson."
News Staff Reporters Stephen Watson, Harold McNeil, Modupe Arowolo, Elmer Ploetz, Dick Dawson, Deidre Williams and Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.