MCSO to conduct random K9 drug, firearm classroom searches

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during the Marion County School Board workshop in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted February 10, 2023 | By Caroline Brauchler

Middle and high schools in Marion County are preparing to conduct random drug and weapon searches on students “in the very near future,” according to a Marion County Public Schools news release.

Schools and classrooms will be selected at random for weekly searches through a computer program. Students, staff and faculty will be asked to exit the classrooms and leave all personal belongings, which will be searched by a Marion County Sheriff Office’s K-9 unit in coordination with the Safe Schools Department. The students will be searched by school or district employees with metal-detecting wands, according to the release.

The decision to implement random, or administrative, searches was made to counteract security threats on campuses due to the possession of weapons and decrease the possession of illegal drugs. The use of K-9 units in searches has been further encouraged due to MCSO’s new firearm-detecting dog.

Administrative searches fall under a new category within the district, conducted without a need for seasonable suspicion or probable cause, said School Board Attorney Jeremy Powers.

The district’s policy for all other forms of searches will remain in place, so a school authority may search a student’s person, belongings or locker if there is reasonable suspicion that a student is in possession of contraband.

The language surrounding administrative searches in the updated policy manual was written to allow for future searches such as these, said Powers in an email.

“In quick summary, searches are only conducted with reasonable suspicion … until the administrative search procedures are implemented, allowing for some randomization of searches,” he said via email.

Parents will be informed of the searches via Skyalert messaging. Personal phone calls will be made to the parents or guardians of any student who is found to be in possession of a weapon or illegal drug after the search.

The procedure for random searches is not outlined in the school board’s search and seizure policy, but instead made under the jurisdiction of the superintendent, Diane Gullett. Administrative searches may be conducted by school officials, law enforcement officials or anyone delegated by the school or district to do so. The superintendent will maintain procedures for who will conduct the search, who will be searched and the circumstances in which they are necessary, according to the Code of Student Conduct.

“In light of the threat to school safety posed by the unauthorized presence on school campuses of firearms, controlled substances and other prohibited or illegally possessed items, administrative searches of students and their lockers, backpacks, vehicles, personal effects and storage areas may be conducted,” according to the code.

The measures for both reasonable suspicion and random searches include the use of metal detectors for weapons and “sniffs” by dogs, or one dog in particular — Albi.

Albi is the MCSO’s first firearm-detecting K-9 and is an addition to the school resource officer division. Albi’s handler, Cpl. Erik DeAngelis, will be utilizing the K-9 in random school searches as well as searching while at extracurricular events.

Using K-9 units to search classrooms for weapons or illegal drugs would only be affective if the contraband is located in the backpacks or belongings of students, however.

“In the case of a firearm detection K-9, these necessarily must be conducted in conjunction with a minimally invasive metal detector search … in which students are asked to remove all metal and then briefly wanded or walked through a detector unit outside the presence of their belongings,” said Powers via email.

This two-part search will require both law enforcement and school officials to carry out.

“The goal of these new searches is to maintain safe learning and working environments and to deter anyone from bringing weapons or illegal drugs to campus,” according to the press release.

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