The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a lawsuit against school and police officials in a South Dakota town for using a drug-sniffing dog to search children as young as 6.
The ACLU said it believes this was the first case of a police dog being used to search elementary school children for drugs. The incident not only violated their Fourth Amendment rights but also left many young children "terrorized" in their classrooms, said Graham Boyd, lead ACLU counsel on the case.
In one kindergarten class, the dog escaped from its handler and chased screaming children around the room, the complaint alleges. In another class, it says, an 11-year-old girl who had been scarred in a pit bull attack two years earlier was traumatized when her teacher denied her permission to stand during the search.
The search was conducted on two separate days in May, according to the federal class action lawsuit filed in Sioux Falls on behalf of 17 Native American students at Wagner Community School, a K-12 school in the rural town of Wagner, near the Yankton Sioux Reservation. After the principal announced a "lockdown" over a loudspeaker, the complaint says, students were instructed to remain in their seats with their hands on their desks and to avoid making sudden movements when the dog passed them.
"We're seeing ever-more aggressive tactics in the so-called war on drugs, but what this school allowed was truly shocking," said Boyd.
Ken Cotton, the attorney acting for the school board, declined to comment because he said he had not had time to talk thoroughly to his clients.
"What I can tell you is that our school has always taken a very pointed view toward making sure the students have a drug-free environment," Cotton said.
Two other defendants are named in the suit, Eugene Niehus, chief of the Wagner Police Department, and Neil A. McCaleb, the assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of Interior. The ACLU alleges that the dog's handler was a federal law enforcer under McCaleb's jurisdiction and that he was accompanied by local police. Neither agency returned calls for comment yesterday.
The ACLU contends that the search violated the Fourth Amendment right of those not suspected of a crime to remain free from searches by the police, and that it significantly extended the practice in many schools of using sniffer dogs to search lockers while the students are in class.
The ACLU has filed lawsuits in two cases of drug-sniffing dogs being used on high school students in the past three years, prevailing on appeal in a California case and settling a New Mexico case out of court last year.
Bernadette Raymond, the mother of four children named in the suit, said she believes there could be a racist motive behind the decision to use a dog to search the students, many of whom are Native American.
"It definitely scared my youngest son, Tod [who is 11], and my reaction was, how dare you intimidate my children for no reason? Do you think we're all drug addicts?" said Raymond.
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