For most students, it’s a mere inconvenience when campus supervisors bar them from going to their cars. But there is something unmistakably serious about on-campus car searches—just as the K-9 units that carry them out are a far cry from McGruff the Crime Dog.
As The Californian and KSBW reported, on March 13, California Department of Justice STING agents worked with the Salinas Police Department and Monterey County Sheriff’s Office to search Carmel High for illegal substances. The investigation, a subset of California’s “Operation Safe Schools,” continued later that day, when DOJ agents inspected two locations in Carmel Valley. Another K-9 search followed shortly afterward on March 25.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, warrantless searches of property on campus are constitutional so long as the investigator has “reasonable suspicion,” a precedent set by New Jersey v. T.L.O. in 1985, when the search of a student’s purse was justified by the fact that she had previously been caught smoking.
This point is hammered home by a sign posted on chain-link fencing in the parking lot, which warns students of Board Policy 5145.12—that is, that “students cannot learn, nor staff work or teach, on a campus where the presence of such harmful items impedes the educational process,” and that “the California Constitution provides that all students and staffs of public schools have the inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe, secure, and peaceful.”
Thus, the policy continues, “the principal or administrative designee may search students and their personal belongings (including, but not limited to, backpacks and purses) without their consent if there exists reasonable suspicion that the student(s) to be searched are violating or have violated a District or school rule or regulation, or the law.”
In an interview, Principal Rick Lopez took the time to dispel some of the grandiose rumors surrounding the March 13 investigation: “There were no arrests made, and there was just one dog,” he affirms.
Lopez also clarified the extent of the CHS administration’s involvement in the investigation—that is to say there was none at all. “All I can say is that the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office arrived on campus with a warrant,” Lopez says.
Yet there is still some degree of controversy among the student body. While writing this article, I spoke to several students, some of whom had been investigated and detained on March 13.
“Going here, you can see that weed isn’t really the problem. It’s pills and alcohol,” one student remarked. While their first comment is debatable—seeing as the 2013 California Healthy Kids survey states that 36 percent of juniors reported using marijuana within 30 days of taking the questionnaire—the general sentiment isn’t.
In 2013, Sandpiper reporter Carly Rudiger reported that local paraphernalia shops (such as NorCal) would sell hookah pens and e-cigs without checking for ID, while 2014 grad Elexis Perez investigated students’ comments that nitrous oxide had “become one of the normal party drugs in the Carmel and Monterey area.” Earlier this year, staff writer Lennie Rodriguez penned an article on the prevalence of Xanax, Adderall and other “study drugs”— just as 2013 grad Josh Marcus had two years earlier.
Some students I spoke with opined that Carmel-by-the-Sea’s relative prosperity, with a median family income of $98,889 according to the U.S. Census 2011 American Community Survey, contributes to the frequency of substance abuse. Others joked that the use of illegal drugs was simply something to do in a town better known for its golf and car shows than its youth pastimes.
But regardless of where the root of Carmel’s drug problem lies, both the CHS administration and local officials are making sure to address the issue—and the misconceptions surrounding it.
“There are certainly some students here who make poor decisions,” Lopez asserts. “But that’s absolutely a minority…almost all of our students do the right thing.“
“Still, we’re not sticking our heads in the sand,” he continues.
And so, as long as Carmel High students are putting themselves and their classmates at risk, they will continue to be subject to searches.