Drug Dogs in Schools

A few recent tweets about the use of drug dogs in schools have sent me back to what we know about this sort of intervention.

Release, a charity that provides advice on drugs and the law, drew my attention to a story about their use in Plymouth:

TEN police officers with a sniffer dog swooped on a secondary school and searched 2,000 pupils amid drug rumours.

The operation was carried out at Ivybridge Community College last Friday but no illegal substances were found.

Then Professor Alex Stephens from the University of Kent tweeted about drug dogs being used in schools in the county where the police media release said:

Three Kent Police officers will showcase police resources used to tackle drug problems through a presentation that includes a police dog handler and drugs dog as well as a drug detection machine to a large assembly of pupils and staff.

This will be followed up by screening areas of the school and its pupils for drug possession at a later date.

On each occasion I thought back to the guidance that the Association of Chief Police Officers developed about how they work with schools on drug issues.  I was part of the advisory group for that work, and sat in on a number of evidence sessions that helped inform our understanding of how police were working in this area and what informed those decisions.

We met with officers and schools that had used drug dogs and saw videos about how the interventions had been conducted.  We also looked at the evidence for this being an effective way of working, and considered the ethics of how dogs could be used.

Drugscope, who led on the development of the guidance, then consulted widely about what ACPO were proposing and heard from police officers from across the country and from schools and those who supported schools when it came to drug and alcohol issues.

The position that ACPO finally took on this was that, while each constabulary should negotiate a local agreement:

ACPO recommends that drugs dogs should not be used for searches where there is no evidence for the presence of drugs on school premises. Demonstration and educational visits should not be used as a covert detection exercise.

The Department for Education – who are the other side to this coin in England – in their latest guidance to schools (which was produced with ACPO) reminds schools of ACPO’s view but then goes on to say:

However schools may choose to make use of drug dogs or drug testing strategies if they wish.

The falibility of dogs

What neither document does is provide context for schools to consider whether using dogs is an effective, evidence based, way of detecting drug use.

Firstly from a paper from the Institute for Biological Detection Systems, of Auburn University which suggested that dogs in artificial testing situations return false positives anywhere from 12.5% to 60% of the time, depending on the length of the search.

Meanwhile in Australia the press reported on figures supplied to Parliament which showed that “80 per cent of sniffer dog searches for drugs resulted in ‘false positives'”.

The figures obtained from the state government in response to parliamentary questions on notice show 14,102 searches were conducted after a dog sat next to a person, indicating they might be carrying drugs. But, in 11,248 cases, no drugs were found.

All in all this suggests that there are reasons for us to be reasonably certain that this is not likely to be an effective way of detecting drug use in a school.

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