The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 27, 2012

Zero-tolerance policy leads to crackdown on drugs, weapons

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— The number of drugs and weapons infractions for 2012-13 is on pace to double last year’s total as the Limestone County Board of Education enforces a zero-tolerance policy in an effort to increase student safety and decrease drug use on high school campuses.

Records show a total of 23 drugs or weapons infractions were processed by the Central Office during the fall semester, including 12 for drugs and 11 for weapons, at the school system’s six high schools.

By comparison, a total of 32 drugs or weapons violations were reported during the 2011-12 school year, including 27 for drugs and five for weapons.

Two schools — Tanner and Ardmore — did not have any drug-related violations reported to the Central Office for the fall semester. West Limestone had five incidents, Clements four, East Limestone two and Elkmont one.

East Limestone did not report a weapons violation for the fall semester, but Ardmore (four), Clements (three), West Limestone (two), Elkmont (one) and Tanner (one) recorded at least one incident involving a weapon.

During the 2011-12 school year, each high school had at least two drug-related infractions, while Ardmore, Clements, East Limestone and Tanner reported zero weapons violations.

Zero-tolerance

Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk, who was hired in June, has repeatedly stated that violations of the school board’s drug, weapons and fighting policies would result in an automatic student hearing with the school board at the Central Office.

In some instances this fall, the infractions dealt with items that might not be considered a deadly weapon or an illegal drug by a student but were represented as a narcotic or a weapon, such as oregano or a stun gun.

A school disciplinary committee handles many of the policy violations. However, expellable offenses require a student hearing with the seven-member school board.

Drugs, fighting and weapons infractions are Class III violations, and penalties include suspension, transfer to the alternative school and expulsion, according the Code of Conduct in the 2012-13 student handbook.

Alternative school

Expelled students are barred from returning to their school campus, attending school-related events or participating in extracurricular activities. Typically, they are remanded to the Limestone County Alternative School, where underclassmen have the opportunity to return to their schools and seniors are allowed to graduate with their class if they follow alternative-school requirements and complete their coursework.

Drug searches

Beginning in late spring, Limestone County Schools issued an AlertNow automated phone message to students’ parents or guardians announcing the use of a drug-detection dog in random drug searches in the county schools.

“The school board gave the superintendent the authority to bring them in, and the AlertNow message was to let people know random searches will be conducted,” said Anthony Hilliard, a school board member since 2006. “Hopefully people will think twice before they bring drugs to school. The purpose of the searches is to reduce the amount of drugs in our schools. We’re not trying to increase the number of students sent to alternative school.”

Kilo, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, is brought into a school by his partner, Limestone County Sheriff’s Investigator Lt. Josh McLaughlin. Kilo, who receives at least 16 hours of training per week, wears a muzzle and body harness while under constant supervision by McLaughlin as they sweep past student lockers. If the scent of narcotics is detected, then a locker is searched or monitored.

“Residual odors can be detected, and they can last for several days,” Hilliard said. “Even if something isn’t found during a (locker) search, this can become a watched area.”

According to a student who graduated from West Limestone last spring, a drug search usually takes about an hour and students are not permitted to leave their classrooms.

“These searches are not pre-announced,” Hilliard said. “The principal instructs employees to go to lockdown, and the dog, which is wearing a muzzle, is sniffing the lockers until he hits on something.”

Student perspective

A 16-year-old 11th-grader at one of the county schools said her school was not searched last spring or this fall by a drug-detection dog.

She said that at least five students in her grade are recreational drug users who partake in marijuana and “dusting spray” — a compressed-air spray used to clean computer keyboards — during school hours.

Students are known to use drugs in the parking lot before school, between classes and in the school restrooms, according to the student, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons.

“In class we talk about what’s going on in the world or about class work, but we don’t talk about drugs,” she said. “Students know about alternative school but they’re not scared of going to A-school.

“I don’t know what would make a difference because the students who use drugs don’t care (what happens to them). A lot of them grew up with a hard life, and they use drugs for fun. I grew up with a hard life, too, but I don’t do drugs because I’m just not into them.”