This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.
Responding to an increase in violence, drugs and gang activity in and around schools, the Madison School District is considering a broad effort to improve building security, including the use of drug-sniffing dogs in high schools next year.
The district also is proposing to lock the main entrances of middle school buildings during the day. Other recommendations include redesigning main entrances at West and Memorial high schools and adding surveillance cameras to all elementary and middle schools, district security coordinator Luis Yudice said.
“We are not doing this because we believe we have severe problems in our schools (or) because we experienced a tragedy in our schools,” Yudice said. “We don’t want to wait until there’s a crisis. We want to get ahead of the game.”
The School Board is expected to review the proposals in early June.
Rochelle Lopez, parent of a junior at La Follette High School, said she would support drug-sniffing dogs in schools.
She said her son has been offered prescription painkillers in the hallway; told her students come to class smelling of marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol; and was once attacked by a group of boys in the locker room.
“There’s not enough security up here,” Lopez said.
In a memo to the School Board this year, Yudice highlighted how drugs, gangs and violence have become more prevalent in Madison schools.
Though disciplinary referrals for weapons violations in schools are down in recent years, Yudice said police have found more individuals with weapons, particularly guns, in areas near schools than in previous years. Gangs also have become more visible and active in schools and the larger community.
This school year there was a sexual assault in a stairwell at East High School, a fight involving brass knuckles and multiple strong-armed robberies. Disciplinary referrals for drug possession were up 60 percent in 2009-10 over 2006-07, according to district data.
Random sweeps with K-9s?
In response, Yudice recommended the district adopt a policy that would allow random sweeps by Madison police officers with drug-sniffing dogs. A proposed policy states the dogs could be used to check lockers, vehicles parked on school property and common areas, but not individual students unless there is specific reasonable suspicion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of using drug-sniffing dogs in schools, but other courts have ruled police must suspect a law has been broken to have dogs examine students or their belongings, according to Stacy Harbaugh, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
“Schools shouldn’t allow the use of dogs at all,” Harbaugh said. “But if police action is necessary to secure the safety of the school, dogs should only be used within reason.”
Shabazz High School parent Melanie French said drug-sniffing dogs in schools only “perpetuates fear, violence and loss of productivity.”
“I can understand wanting safe schools,” French said. “But the dogs? Come on, people. Isn’t that a violation of a human’s rights?”
La Follette Principal Joe Gothard said even though students are punished for being caught with drugs “clearly the punishment isn’t a deterrent enough.”
Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain said police support the use of drug-sniffing dogs in schools.
Several other districts in the area, including Middleton-Cross Plains, McFarland, Sun Prairie, Verona, Monona Grove and Stoughton, already use drug-sniffing dogs to deter drug possession and trafficking in schools.
McFarland Superintendent Scott Brown said the dogs, which are used once or twice a year, “have helped continue to keep our school-related incidents of drug possession and use very low.”
Assessment shows weaknesses
The issue of building security in Madison was brought into focus following a fatal shooting in the Weston School District in 2006. The following year, a 6-year-old in Racine was sexually assaulted by a school intruder.
Madison School District officials completed a security assessment of all middle and high schools last year and are almost done assessing all elementary schools.
The assessments found almost all of Madison’s schools, with the exception of Olson and Chavez elementary schools, were designed years ago when building security wasn’t as much of a focus as it is today.
High schools especially have multiple entry points, hidden alcoves and numerous areas that are difficult to monitor. The sexual assault in the fall at East took place in such a stairwell, Yudice said.
Though most buildings have all their doors locked except the main entrance during the day, the security assessment found teachers and students routinely prop open doors.
“Somebody can walk in and wander through the building without anybody knowing about it,” Yudice said. “That’s the safety risk we feel we need to address.”
Using part of a $125,000 federal grant, the district bought remote locking devices with cameras and intercoms that will allow the district to lock all of its middle schools next year during the day. Visitors would have to be buzzed in by building staff.
Ideally, Yudice said, the district would also lock elementary school buildings during the day, though that’s not recommended for next year because of the cost.
The district is considering adding surveillance systems to elementary and middle schools.
Four cameras and a recorder in an elementary school would cost $8,000; eight cameras and a recorder at a middle school would cost $15,000.
School welcome centers
This year the district completed a $200,000 welcome center at La Follette High School. The district cut the cost by $75,000 by incorporating a new Summit Credit Union branch that opened in the school this year.
A similar approach with a credit union is being considered for Memorial High School. Yudice also recommends building a welcome center at West.
The welcome center approach is viewed as a way to balance the need for tighter security with a history in Madison of open schools accessible to the community.
“We remain very concerned about these problems in our schools,” Superintendent Dan Nerad said. “My hope is people will understand this is a commitment to improving the environment.”