The use of drug-sniffing dogs and random drug testing of Oak Park and River Forest High School students drew support among the 60 people attending a community substance abuse forum Wednesday night at River Forest Community Center.

The forum was put together by a parent committee formed following the drug forums in the spring and summer. The event was among several “community café” discussions that have taken place in Oak Park and River Forest this fall.

Guest speakers Wednesday included counselors and consultants who work to help other school districts in the Chicago area remedy drug issues. The attendees sat in roundtable groups to discuss the night’s topics — the effectiveness of drug testing, drug sniffing dogs and a closed campus — in combating substance abuse among students.

Drug testing of students, either random or comprehensive, was supported by many, along with using canines to search lockers and parking lots. Concerns about using dogs involved logistical issues, such as how long would it take. Closing the school campus drew support, though logistical questions were raised here as well.

River Forest Police Ofc. Michael Thornley was among the roundtable participants but spoke briefly to the audience about using canines. River Forest’s schools have not used them, nor has Oak Park and River Forest High School. Thornley, though, said a school would basically be locked down before dogs are brought in. Lockers and parking lots, including where faculty members park, would be searched. Students would be barred from being in those areas while the canines are present, Thornley explained.

“If you were going to bring in police dogs to do that, you cannot have the students intermixing with the dogs,” he said. “The dogs are not trained to be nice about those kinds of interactions. You can try to keep them apart, but there will always be a safety question for the students.”

For a school as large as OPRF — roughly 3,500 students — Thornley said it would take five to six dogs and 10 to 12 officers. The school board, however, would have to approve using drug-detecting canines.

Thornley knows of schools that bring in dogs twice a school year, one time per semester, and the searches are random and never announced to students. As for OPRF doing that, he said, “My only statement toward that would be, if the school were to decide to do this, you may want to use police dogs, because you’re making a statement as a community that this is not tolerated in our school. That’s what you’re really doing.

“When you bring in that kind of show of force, you’re announcing to everybody that this is not going to be tolerated here where our children learn.”

Some roundtable participants noted that students who are carrying drugs might stash them outside or not even enter the building with them. Other participants noted that some parents might strongly oppose canine searches and drug testing as a violation of their students’ rights.

Thornley addressed that, saying that students do have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to lockers or bags on their person. The school’s student code of conduct also allows searchers under specified circumstances.

Another speaker, Diane Busch, a consultant who works with schools in developing comprehensive anti-drug programs, spoke about the use of drug testing. Busch has worked with such schools as Lyons Township and Downers Grove high schools. Busch said the schools saw a dramatic drop in substance abuse among students because of testing. Canines and breathalyzers also proved effective. Busch and other speakers, and some roundtable participants, stressed that the programs were not punitive, but preventive.

“I do not see drug testing as a way to catch kids,” she said. “It’s a way to help kids who are using and a way to support non-using students.”

The Oak Park and River Forest High School Citizens’ Council was a co-sponsor of Wednesday’s forum, moderated by John Williams, youth services director for Oak Park Township.

Closed campus and community buy-in

Closing OPRF’s campus was a popular idea among participants at forums during the spring and summer. That remained the case at Wednesday’s “community café” drug forum at River Forest Community Center, 8020 Madison St.

At several of the roundtable discussion groups, many participants supported closing the campus to all students; it’s currently closed to freshman only during lunch periods.

High school officials are open to the idea of closing the campus and have let parents and students know of that possibility if students’ behavior does not improve while they’re out of the building.

One participant remarked that she’s heard of OPRF students claiming that they would fight to deter the campus from closing. Participants also talked about those parents who might object to drug testing and using drug detecting dogs.

School consultant Diane Busch, a speaker at the forum, was asked about how community support was garnered at the schools she works with. Busch said there was much discussion in those communities, and the main message was about safety, not punishing kids.

Some roundtable participants talked about inviting parents from some of those communities to OPRF to speak about the effectives of dogs and testing. One woman encouraged OPRF parents to voice their support as strongly as those parents who might express opposition.

“It’s not about denying your child’s rights, it’s about loving your kids and keeping them safe,” she said.

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