What message are we sending on drugs?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Imagine this: Drug-sniffing dogs greeting your children when they arrive at Oak Park and River Forest High School, conducting locker searches on a random but regular basis. Even if you don't have children at the high school, you're still supporting that institution with your taxes. Is this the environment you want to create for our kids?

Welcome to your internment camp, have a nice day. Teens already tend toward alienation. With all due respect to parents who have real concerns about kids using drugs, this is nuts. This is not the way to address the issue.

What's even harder to figure is the absence of outcry this proposal has generated. Isn't anybody in the adult community going to stand up and take a stand against it?

Kids doing drugs is a legitimate concern. And there are legitimate ways to address that concern. Drug-sniffing dogs is not one of them.

OPRF is currently holding public forums, looking for feedback from community members. Closing the campus has been proposed. Drug testing has been proposed. All ideas are worth discussing. But once you put those ideas out there, it should quickly become apparent which ones are excessive and extreme. Drug-sniffing dogs go beyond the pale. If that's what we've come to, the cause is already lost.

I have no doubt some kids are doing drugs — mostly before or after school, but let's say some are bringing them into school, to sell or to use. Ten percent of the student population? Twenty percent? Even if the number were that high, that means 80 percent of students who don't do drugs, at least not during school, could be subjected to humiliating searches.

Extreme measures require compelling evidence — hard numbers. The bar needs to be set high before resorting to drug-sniffing canines. I haven't heard the kind of evidence that warrants such measures. The high school believes a K9 crackdown would pass a constitutional test. Not good enough in my opinion. It has to be enthusiastically embraced by a majority of the community — adults and students.

Maybe it's all symbolic. We're so serious about this issue, we're willing to do something as nutty as having dogs sniff out contraband in your lockers or coat pockets. Don't take it personally. If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, the dog gets it wrong. Mind if we pat you down?

Hell, we don't even have to go through that at the airport. Just guessing here, but this might have a negative effect on overall student morale.

There are other, better ways to let kids know we're serious about drug use. And we should be serious about it. But we can find creative, constructive ways to send that message. Modeling would help. Parents, teachers and administrators should all be talking in public about their own experiences growing up. OPRF's roster of famous Tradition of Excellence winners might be willing to submit video testimonials. If they once experimented, why did they stop? What cautionary tales can they tell about casualties in their generation? How about parents coming forward to admit their own drug use and promising to stop?

Maybe one of the things driving kids to drugs is not being treated with sufficient respect. Kids need to be inspired to resist drugs, not just threatened with consequences. They need a positive, stimulating environment that gives them reasons to resist. The more their high school environment resembles a prison, the more they'll be tempted to tune out.

If we can't make a strong case for staying sober, how can we expect them to buy in?

In the meantime, it worries me that not enough adults are speaking out strongly against this draconian notion. Maybe no one wants to be the first to say something.

OK, I'll start the conversation: Substance abuse, especially by kids, can ruin lives. We need to send a clear, consistent message about this — in our words and deeds. But measures that strip teens of their dignity should be used as a last resort, only when there is overwhelming evidence. Drug-sniffing dogs send an anti-drug message, but they also send an anti-kid message, not to mention the message that we lack a commitment to personal dignity.

We have a right to expect more from our kids.

And they have a right to expect more from us.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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John Hubbuch from Oak Park  

Posted: March 8th, 2011 11:36 AM

Maybe it's issue fatigue or my deepening skepticism about, well, everything, but I can't get too worked up about this one. Some how having a few canines wandering around seems unlikely to harm the young ones. They're pretty resilient these days. On the other hand , I'm pretty sure that closing the campus and the dogs won't have any significant impact, but it will make everyone feel better at least until the current kids graduate go to college where there is much less supervision.

Another Parent with Two Huskies  

Posted: March 8th, 2011 11:22 AM

I have a hard time balancing a closed campus with teaching my kids we trust them to be responsible members of the community. For those kids who follow the rules, study hard, attend and are involved - not allowing them the opportunity and responsibility to go off campus for lunch with a friend because of a minority of trouble makers seems like the wrong message to send. And dogs, even "safety dogs", remind me of stories of Auschwitz. I'm sorry I just can't mentally go there.

OPRF parent from Oak Park  

Posted: March 8th, 2011 10:22 AM

Thank you, Ken, for saying what needed to be said. No one wants to be the parent who doesn't take drug use seriously (which may be why so little has been said in support of the opposing viewpoint). However, we teach our children not only in the classroom, but also through the overall school environment. Dogs would teach a terrible authoritarian message. The danger here is overreaction, which gets us things like the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and a Tea Party governor in Wisconsin.

Ruth Lazarus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 2:42 PM

I'd be interested in seeing the research you are referring to. I can find research that concluded ".... data indicate that the aforementioned security strategies have little impact on the presence of drugs and weapons in the schools." I can also find what looks like a great book, Homeland Security, where Aaron Kupchik "shows that these policies lead schools to prioritize the rules instead of students, so that students' real problems%u2014often the very reasons for their misbehavior%u2014get ignored."

parent of 2 Huskies from Oak Park  

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 1:42 PM

These measures are not punitive, they are proven to be an effective deterrant and have therapeutic outcomes. They reduce accessibility and give kids another excuse to say no. Understand that dogs don't go near kids, they exist at most all other High schools in the state of IL, and they promote public safety. The kids in our community deserve to be as safe and comfortable as much as kids in all other IL high schools. This is an issue of promoting public safety and reducing teen addiction.

Cathaleen Roach from RIver Forest  

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 11:55 AM

Mr. Trainor should read the research (available thru the OPRFHS website or Kay Foran)on safety dogs and the other options discussed. Local schools that have implemented the best successful programs stress they are not designed to be punitive. Instead, the best programs help kids say "no" (in real ways)and use dogs and such for prevention, e.g, some use golden retrievers, and kids never see the dogs. The good programs provide help - not harsh, punitive action -- when kids are identified as using

Ruth Lazarus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 8:33 AM

Thank you Mr. Trainor. Some of us don't support the punitive measures. I'm not sure I'm remembering this correctly, so please don't beat me up on the numbers, but if 5-10% of students acknowledge ever using drugs/alcohol at school, and over 50% outside of school, the problem is significantly higher outside of school. We need to be asking ourselves, as parents and teachers, why are these children using drugs? We need to involve the children and teachers in this discussion.

Monica Rogers Sheehan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 11:30 PM

Mr. Trainor, the reality is drug dealers, students and nonstudents, operate freely within Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRFHS) everyday. The open campus allows anyone easy access into the building and its students. Safety is a major concern. Ask residents who live near the high school about the illicit activities they observe. Or better yet, around lunchtime, you could walk or drive by the school and its surrounding streets and alleys and observe the activity first hand. Students routinely see drug deals going down in school bathrooms and locker rooms, and they report smelling pot in the hallways. The 2010 Illinois Youth Survey showed alcohol and other drug use by OPRFHS students is double that of other high school students locally, statewide, and nationally. At least one teacher has said it's difficult to teach class after lunch some days because so many students are stoned. There is a definite link between alcohol and other drug use by students and the Achievement Gap. Compelling evidence requires compelling action. One such action is using drug-sniffing dogs, either safety dogs or police dogs. Eight schools in the West Suburban Conference, in which OPRFHS belongs, and many more schools across the state and nationwide use dogs in random, unannounced searches to help keep drugs out of their respective schools. Trained Golden Retrievers are used as safety dogs. They are very effective and nonthreatening. Police dogs can also be used, and they do not come in contact with students. The cost for using drug-sniffing dogs is minimal, and searches can take as little as 20 minutes. Drug-sniffing dogs are an effective deterrent, and they send a strong anti-drug message to students and drug dealers alike. Under current law, OPRFHS can bring in drug-sniffing dogs at any time. The following excerpt is taken from page 34 of the OPRFHS Student Handbook 2010-2011. "School authorities may request the assistance of law enforcement officials for the purpose of conducting inspections and searches of lockers, desks, parking lots, and other school property and equipment owned or controlled by the school for illegal drugs, weapons, or other illegal or dangerous substances or materials, including searches conducted through the use of specially trained dogs." When the choice is between dogs and drugs in our high school, I choose dogs. Monica Rogers Sheehan Oak Park

Jim Blaha  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 7:08 PM

Another inaccurate Wednesday Journal article with no research. I was concerned about the dogs. I called Hinsdale School District, a district that does use dogs. I talked with their police officer in charge of the program. He explained the dogs are brought in when students start a class and are done before the class ends. No disruption or student contact. They do this a few times a year. If you are going to join an adult discussion, please do so responsibly. Hope you enjoyed your day off.

David Biggus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 6:19 PM

Ken, do you always do so little research before writing an article? Your hard #'s are in the Ill. Youth Survey, which found 41% of seniors at OPRF smoked pot in the last 30 days, *double* the national avg! Oak Parkers have taken almost no action to protect our young citizens. We are one of a select few high schools that do NOT use drug dogs. Schools report them to be safe, non-threatening, and an excellent deterrent, esp for the drug dealers who roam the halls. The kids SHOULD expect more.

Kelly O'Connor from Oak Park  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 6:12 PM

Mr. Trainor with all due respect it is clear to me that you did not attend the Dec. 8th Community Cafe. You missed listening to professionals with experience using canine/drug/school safety dogs. Students do NOT and I repeat do NOT come into direct contact with the dogs.The officer has complete control of the dog at all time.This is not a new concept. Many schools use them and have said they are an effective deterrent. Imagine that...deter drugs. Pretty effective at the airport too!

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