Two years after approving the use of drug-sniffing dogs, Broward County schools may have another narcotic-fighting weapon: an aerosol spray that detects residue on school desks or backpacks, similar to bomb-detection equipment used in airports.
Despite research that shows drug use is down among high school seniors since the early 1980s, school systems nationwide are becoming more aggressive at trying to curtail the problem. And the federal government is helping, with grants to more than 20 school systems that want to try the new spray.
If the Broward School Board approves the kits this fall, a principal could rub sticky paper on a locker or desk—or anything else that might have been touched by a drug user—and then spray it with a chemical to find traces of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, speed and Ecstasy.
The paper may display one of a rainbow of colors, depending on the illicit substance: reddish-brown for marijuana, purple for heroin, canary yellow for amphetamines.
The school district is downplaying the scope of the kits, saying they would only be used when there is probable cause to suspect drug use, to confirm or debunk suspicions that a student is on dope.
“My intention is not to swab kids,” said Joe Melita, the Broward school district’s chief investigator. “It could be used if a parent is worried about their child and needs the school’s help.”
A positive test from the kit would likely steer a student to the guidance office, not the police station, Melita said. “We don’t want this to be a punitive thing.”
The U.S. Supreme Court allowed public schools two years ago to drug- test students who participate in extracurricular activities, expanding a 1995 ruling allowing testing for athletes. Neither Broward nor Miami- Dade schools conducts those tests, despite the green light.
If approved, Broward would join a handful of school districts nationwide—including Palm Beach County—that have used the kits, made by a Washington, D.C., firm and funded with a federal grant.
The Broward School Board was scheduled to vote on their use last month, but it postponed the decision to give parent groups an opportunity to discuss it.
Miami-Dade doesn’t have drug-sniffing dogs, but some schools have traditional drug-testing kits that test actual samples instead of residue, said Officer Ed Torrens, spokesman for the Miami-Dade schools police.
Charles Griffiths, a program executive for Mistral, which manufactures the kits, said they could help a teacher who believes a student is getting high at lunch.
“A principal walks into a classroom and thinks he smelled marijuana, for instance,” Griffiths said. “They ask everyone to leave, and they test the different desks. They find a positive hit, and then they test the student’s book bag, and then the student’s coat sleeve. The school can bring the student’s parents down and get the student some help.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has questioned the use of the kits in the past.
“It just seems like another encroachment of the police state,” said Alan Schieb, a member of the Broward ACLU. “I would be really worried about false positives.”
Griffiths said that won’t happen.
“If Johnny rides a school bus and touches a seat of someone who has used drugs, that’s not going to show up,” Griffiths said. “We try to assure parents that if it’s accidental we aren’t going to catch it.”
The Broward school system has some partnerships with municipal police forces, allowing them to bring drug-sniffing dogs into schools to check backpacks, but not students.
“It’s not something we use very often,” Melita said. “It’s only used two or three times [a year].”
Drug Use Trends
South Broward High assistant principal Alan Strauss hadn’t heard of the kits, but doesn’t believe that drug use is any worse today than a decade ago. Research has shown that drug use among high school students peaked in the early 1980s and is lower today than in 1975.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be,” Strauss said. “I think that a lot of the measures that have been put in place have been a deterrent. I talk to teachers who worked in the ’70s and they say it was much, much worse.”
Kia Love, who graduated this year from Pembroke Pines Charter High School, said the kits sound like a good idea.
“The school needs to know if a kid is doing drugs,” Love said. “Instead of bringing a whole pack of dogs, this a more discreet way.”
Palm Beach County schools used the kits last year in six problem high schools.
“We found the parents appreciated what we were doing,” said Palm Beach County schools spokesman Nat Harrington. “It was for them, not the police.”