The Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education approved the use of drug-sniffing canines in local high schools, beginning this fall.

In response to an increase in student drug use, the Board of Education authorized a new partnership with Interquest Detection Canines with a three-two vote at their meeting last Tuesday. According to Interquest Detection Canines owner Michael Ferdinand, drug-sniffing dogs are used in 21 states and approximately 1,600 educational institutions.

Ferdinand said the highly trained animals help reduce the guesswork commonly employed in school officials’ hunt for illegal substances.

“It turned out to be a dynamic tool that allowed school administrators to rely on specially trained dogs to determine the presence of contraband on campus,” Ferdinand said. “The other nice feature about it is that the dogs do not know gender or ethnicity. They do not know the valedictorian from the local drug dealer. It is completely objective and has been proven to be an effective program.”

SBUSD Board President Susan Deacon said canine investigations of lockers, backpacks and parking lots are conducted several times a month at random to preserve the method’s impartiality.

“If [students] are bringing drugs to campus, I am hoping that in this completely random fashion [the dogs] will catch anyone who brings them, not just any particular set of students,” Deacon said. “It is my belief that it absolutely has to be random.”

According to Deacon, the program serves primarily to curb drug use rather than reprimand guilty students.

“As a person who supported this, it is not my intention to punish kids, or to catch them,” Deacon said. “My intention is for this to serve as a deterrent so people don’t bring drugs to school.”

However, SBUSD Board member Monique Limon said she is worried the program could reflect a mentality that aims to penalize, rather than help, students struggling with drug problems.

“I think that there needs to be alignment between the tool that you are using, the policy that you have in place and the practice — what is actually happening in our schools,” Limon said. “The entire school board is on the same page as far as wanting to [reduce] drug use on campus; I do not know that we are on the same page as far as the method to achieve that goal.”

Limon said the board is grappling with various options for determining the disciplinary consequences for students found with illicit substances.

“We do not have a policy that specifically addresses … what would happen if a student gets caught,” Limon said. “One of the things we have been exploring is [how] we are required by law to notify law enforcement. Do we keep the student in the office and wait for law enforcement to show up, or let law enforcement know the names of the students that committed the particular offense?”

According to Ferdinand, parents and students generally support the policy in hopes of preserving a healthy campus atmosphere.

“The dynamic of having a safe and secure learning environment probably supersedes most of the personal concerns that folks have,” Ferdinand said. “In the surveys that we do with students and parents, we normally get about a 95 percent acceptance rating for the program.”