Periodic searches, using canine detection units, have become routine in Aurora-area high schools. The searches begin when an administrator enters the classroom and asks students to leave their belongings and line up in the hallway. The drug-sniffing dog then comes in and sniffs backpacks and jackets, looking for various substances. AP Photo

Hinkley High School teacher Carlos Valdez was wrapping up his third-period history lesson on racism, police brutality and Malcolm X when security officials stepped into the classroom and announced it was time for a surprise drug search.

Unexpected but not unusual in all Aurora Public Schools secondary schools, the April 24 canine drug hunt did not end well. Valdez and others want the school district to reconsider the inspections altogether.

The periodic searches start when an administrator comes into the classroom and asks students to leave their backpacks and line up in the hallway. A drug-sniffing dog then comes in and sniffs backpacks and coats, looking for signs of a variety of drugs.

With the students out of Valdez’s classroom late last month, a trained handler brought in a dog while a school administrator and other school-district campus security officers watched, according to Valdez and student eyewitnesses.

Minutes later, the CSO brought two student’s backpacks out into the hallway and asked whose they were. One student sheepishly admitted one was his. He was instructed to go to the principal’s office.

Another student, Tremayne David, slowly turned and then suddenly ran down the hall, witnesses said.

He didn’t make it very far before he was tackled by the campus monitor and two civilian security officers, according to multiple witnesses.

Valdez  and others said the two CSOs slammed David to the ground. For the next 15 minutes, David was pressed into the hallway floor on his stomach. His hands were cuffed, Valdez said.

Valdez and others said they later learned that the drug-dog search had yielded five marijuana edibles in David’s backpack. David is a special needs learner with particular problems stemming from emotional instability, his mother, Evette Mitchell, later told The Sentinel. Valdez saw David devolve into an anxiety attack as the CSOs pinned him and cuffed his hands. He screamed and writhed underneath the weight of the safety officers.

APS officials said civilian school security officers routinely carry handcuffs and are trained to use them.

Evette Mitchell, mother of Tremayne David, sits for a portrait in her Aurora home.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

“I distinctly remember him telling APS security that he couldn’t breathe. They did nothing about that,” Valdez said. “His eyes got really, really big.”

Students said they were horrified.

Hannah Drew, a student in the class, said all the kids were corralled back in their classroom while the CSOs kept David on the floor. She said they closed the door, but they could still hear him screaming. Valdez came in the room later and looked like he had been crying.

Campus school resource officers – the Aurora Police Department officers assigned to protect students in schools – were off-campus on another call, Valdez said. APD officers were dispatched to the school and helped calm David down.

Mitchell said she received a call shortly after that her son was in trouble at school. She came with her two other children to take him home and found him in an administrator’s office.

His hands were still cuffed, she said, but she said he has not been charged with a crime. She took him to the hospital for treatment for bruises on his back.

The Sentinel confirmed that APD officers responded to the event and filed a lengthy report. However, APD would not disclose the report and gave no rationale for withholding it. Police spokespersons referred The Sentinel to the Arapahoe County district attorney. Officials there, however, said they could not disclose whether any case did or didn’t exist because David is a minor. His mother said, however, no charges have yet been filed against her son.

It is unclear whether APD recommended charges against David, or possibly school officials for how they handled David during the search.

Aurora Public Schools officials are investigating the incident, said APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen. A review of the incident is expected within days or weeks. School district officials spoke at length about the searches in general, but they declined to comment on this particular search because of the internal investigation.

The review, however, will focus on the April 24 search, not the longstanding program district officials say has been in place for years. And APS is hardly alone in using drug-sniffing dogs to help keep drugs out of schools.

In APS, all high schools, middle schools and Pickens Technical College are subject to these types of searches, Christiansen said.

In the weeks since the scene rocked the school, educators and activists – and Mitchell – have also raised concerns about racial tension between security or police officers and APS students. David is black, Valdez noted, and the CSOs involved were white.

Critics generally say black and Hispanic students bear the brunt of security officers who take things too far in response to benign infractions.

Bryan Lindstrom, a social studies teacher at Hinkley and a candidate for Aurora City Council, did not say whether the harsh security response was racially motivated, but he added that security officers and even teachers grapple with subconscious, implicit biases, causing them to treat Hispanic and black students differently – often, harsher – than white students.

Regardless, Valdez said there would not have been a disruption without the drug-dog search and ensuing takedown of David. He noted that David had finished all of his work for the class period and did not appear stoned.

While school officials tout the program as a way to ensure students are safe at school, Valdez said the search and tackle have made students feel less safe.

Searches abound

APS has used drug-sniffing dogs since the late 1990s, according to district Chief Operating Officer Anthony Sturges.

He said the practice has been “pretty much standard protocol for the last 20 some-odd years – quite frankly with little or no fanfare.”

The idea is to proactively prevent students from bringing drugs or alcohol onto campuses. Sturges said seeing drug-sniffing dogs in schools can be a powerful deterrent for students who otherwise might bring illicit substances to school in their coats or backpacks.

Lindstrom said he’s not naive to students bringing drugs to school and acknowledged that it is a reality for Hinkley.

“Nobody wants drugs in our school,” he said. “But we do work at a high school that is in Colorado, so I think if you walk into our school with drug dogs on any given day, you will probably find drugs.”

The dogs are a tool to supplement more typical searches, in which a teacher suspects a student has drugs or is under the influence of some substance and refers the matter to a dean, who can search the student if they have a reasonable suspicion.

But with the power of social media, students all over the district will see the drug dogs when students share photos, videos and texts, added APS Security Director Greg Cazzell. That will compound the deterrent effect, he said.

Currently, students at all high schools, middle schools and Pickens Tech can be subject to a drug dog-led search apparently at random, but district CSOs coordinate ahead of time with school principals and pick classrooms to sweep.

APS’ drug-sniffing dogs used to be contracted with the Aurora Police Department, but budget cuts slashed that relationship about a decade ago, Cazzell said. The district now contracts with Interquest, a Houston, Texas-based, company that supplies drug-sniffing dogs.

Cazzell said the contract for the dogs costs APS about $6,000 annually, or about $300 for a half-day of searches and $700 for a full-day.

The dogs can sniff for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, prescription drugs, alcoholic beverages and even gunpowder residue or scents associated with handguns, Cazzell said.

In a typical full day, Cazzell said the dog will sniff around two schools in the morning and two more in the afternoon if it is not too tuckered out. At each school, generally, three classrooms will be searched, along with a variety of lockers.

This school year, APS conducted 28 drug-dog searches of schools, yielding 26 possessions of drugs and three possessions of drug paraphernalia.

That’s compared with 26 searches in the 2017-2018 school year that found just three drug possessions, and 14 searches the year before that yielded just one.

APS noted after publication that the data not provided to Sentinel Colorado shows that searches have been consistent for several years, and that they had not ramped up as previously reported.

If the drug dog alerts its handler that a certain backpack has contraband inside – as in David’s case – Cazzell said the CSO will not search the bag there but ask whose it is, and then take the property and the student into an administrator’s office, where they search the bag in private with the consent of the student, school officials said.

The drug dog searches aren’t limited to APS. The Cherry Creek School District utilizes canine searches to help keep drugs out of schools, said spokesperson Abbe Smith. She said that the dogs generally don’t enter classrooms, though, and stick to smelling lockers while students are in classes.

In the Douglas County School District, a canine search policy of high school and middle schools is publicly available on its website. Law enforcement spearheads the dog-led searches, which can be unannounced and focused on student lockers and vehicles, multiple times a year.

In Jeffco Public Schools, the searches are only conducted by Jefferson County Sheriffs or law enforcement, said spokesperson Diana Wilson. The school district does not have a contract with a drug dog company to conduct the searches itself, Wilson said.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools, headquartered in Thornton, also conducts dog-led searches, according to a policy document. Unannounced canine inspections can be of lockers, desks, personal items or vehicles on district property, according to district policy, or on district buses or at district-sponsored events.

Denver Public Schools does not use drug-sniffing dogs at all, according to spokesperson Anna Alejo.

APS and many of these districts appear to adhere to the legal threshold for a constitutional search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, according to Ian Farrell, an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The standard protects Americans – including school children – from illegal searches and detentions. The bar is the reasonable suspicion that a search and detention would yield evidence of a possible crime.

However, Farrell, said drug-dog sniffings have largely not found to constitute a search requiring reasonable suspicion in Colorado.

In a situation such as an airport, a drug dog can smell your luggage and provide the reasonable suspicion of illicit substances where no suspicion would have otherwise existed – as long as you are not detained during this time, Farrell said. There’s some question as to the legality of forcing students into a hallway, detaining them while searches of their property occurs.

A Colorado Supreme Court decision this week effectively bars state law enforcement agencies from using dogs that specifically smell for marijuana, because the drug is legal in Colorado. Farrell said that does not apply to searches of the property of school-aged children under the age of 21, for whom the drug is still illegal.

The drug dog wasn’t a surprise to Kaela Famber, a Hinkley student who was also in Valdez’s class on April 24, even though she had never seen one in a school before.

She wasn’t scared, she said, in part because the dog was not very big.

Plus, she had seen police officers investigating a violent threat to the school last year. They carried massive guns, she said. The dogs and their civilian handlers seemed relatively harmless.

Even after David was brought to the ground and screamed in his state of panic, Famber said most teachers and students didn’t know about the incident for weeks.

That’s why she decided to testify at a school board meeting last week, in front of a packed crowd of teachers and some activists including Valdez, Lindstrom and Michael Diaz-Rivera of Black Lives Matter 5280.

The district investigation

At the May 14 school board meeting, Famber and other speakers expressed frustration that nothing had been done to remedy what they said was trauma inflicted on students and staff.

Valdez called for “a deep look into procedure and protocol to make sure this never happens to any student, at any school in Aurora ever again.”

In particular, he’s frustrated that no consideration of the student’s special needs was considered – apparently, because the CSOs were not school staff and were not aware.

Valdez told The Sentinel after the day after school board met that no district investigators had contacted him, almost a month later. He said Sturges has since asked him for a statement after he spoke to school board members.

Sturges said he hopes to submit that report to the superintendent next week.

While few people seem to question the legality of the searches, there are many people questioning whether the civilian security officers used excessive force in chasing David and pinning him to the ground.

Christiansen said district staff may use “reasonable and appropriate physical intervention or force in the scope of their employment as necessary to quell a disturbance threatening physical injury to the student or others.”

No charges were levied against David, and his family is not pressing charges or seeking damages against APS, Mitchell said.

The total number of drug dog searches in Aurora Public Schools has doubled in the past two years, from 14 searches in 2016-17 to 28 searches in 2018-19. AP Photo

Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said he did not know the exact facts of the situation, but he weighed in.

“It certainly sounds like that kind of physical force used on the student, who is simply caught with a few marijuana edibles, is over the top,” he said.

If David was charged, Farrell said, a judge would have to decide whether the edibles were legally discovered in his backpack.

Even though no lawsuit is on the horizon, Valdez and Mitchell said that the CSOs mishandled the situation from the start.

As a special needs student, David has specific privileges and school guidelines through an individualized education program that is mandated by federal law. One of those requirements, said Mitchell, is that no student can touch him – and that if he is involved in trouble at school, his social worker has to be called before any interaction with police.

Valdez and Mitchell said that the social worker was not notified until David had been pinned to the ground. Valdez said the social worker, “wasn’t pleased at all with the situation” and helped calm David. Then, she called Mitchell.

Mitchell said her son ran from the CSOs because they would not honor his demands that they call his social worker first. Valdez said he is not sure if David asked for his social worker before running, but said he did ask for her while CSOs kept him on the ground.

David was ultimately suspended for five days, Mitchell said, but David doesn’t even want to go to school anymore despite wanting to graduate and be successful.

It’s the latest hiccup in a tumultuous high school experience for him.

He’s been a special needs student since he was in the fourth grade, he said, and he has long experienced staff and schools that don’t understand or don’t want to help him.

He attended Gateway High School for almost a year as a freshman and suffered from a disease that causes his hair to fall out, Mitchell said. While at Gateway, he acquired a doctor’s note that allowed him to be exempt from the school’s general no-hat and no-hood policy.

She said that staff wouldn’t honor the rule exemption, which landed him in trouble frequently. He didn’t make it through the end of the year, and took a year off while she looked for a school that would meet his needs.

They landed at Hinkley at the beginning of this school year.

She said David was happy there. He formed a fast friendship with Anthony “T.J.” Cunningham, the former assistant principal there, before Cunnigham was tragically killed this year in a dispute over parking.

Mitchell said that, with Cunnigham gone, they felt like no one had David’s back.

Now, not only does David not want to go to his school, he’s back in counseling with Aurora Mental Health, Mitchell said. But he’s been back at school since in the incident – in between a suspension and a week off – and he plans to go back to Hinkley next fall after summer break.

“He was fine, he was cool. Now he has to start up sessions again because of this,” she said of her son.

Demands for change

Mitchell said she wants to see her son and other special needs students treated with more respect in Aurora schools.

But she also added that she believes the dog-led search of her son’s backpack was racially motivated, and questioned whether a drug-sniffing dog could smell store-bought marijuana edibles in wrapping. She said that she’s known that her son self-medicates by smoking marijuana for his depression and anxiety conditions, and that he prefers the drug to the medication his doctor prescribed. However, David told her that the edibles in his backpack were a friend’s.

A recent incident at an Aurora high school where a boy was tackled by school officials has drawn attention to how schools keep classes drug free. AP Photo

Lindstrom said he thinks race is always an issue when disciplining or even teaching children.

He said that many teachers at Hinkley are white and come from higher-income families than students they teach. About 94 percent of the school’s almost 2,200 students are racial minorities, according to state Department of Education data. Many meet guidelines for designation as impoverished.

“That’s always on our radar,” Lindstrom said of racism in schools. “Do we have this problem? Yes, we absolutely have this problem.”

After the incident, Valdez took the initiative to reach out to Denver-area racial justice organizations, including Black Lives Matter 5280.

Michael Diaz-Rivera, a Black Lives Matter 5280 organizer who used to work frequently in Aurora schools with Rise Colorado, is no stranger to the drug-sniffing dogs. He said he’s personally had two classrooms searched while he was teaching children how to navigate school networks for staff support and resources.

He testified at school board last week as well, calling for change.

Black Lives Matter already has an initiative calling for funds to be diverted away from security officers – including the district CSOs and the police stationed at schools as school resource officers – and invested instead in support staff for students such as counselors, social workers, therapists and family liaisons. The idea, he said, is to be proactive – not punitive – with non-white students in particular.

That’s a big ask.

Kelly Bates, a Cherry Creek School District school board member, said at a meeting this month she appreciated seeing increased security at district schools after the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting this month.

On the other hand, Aurora state Rep. Jovan Melton, who is black, slammed a proposed amendment in the Legislature’s budget bill this spring that he said would have allowed for more police in schools. He said that could put minorities at risk.

“It would allow for children to be introduced to law enforcement. Who are we policing at that point?” he said. “In those situations where there is racial bias, we do see black and brown kids getting criminalized, finding themselves in trouble when they are just trying to go to school.”

District discipline data indicate that black students are given harsher treatment by APS staff, and are expelled and suspended at higher rates than their white and Hispanic peers, The Sentinel reported last month. The district has improved the gap in recent years – for instance, by working with families of disobedient students instead of simply suspending them.

Plus, APS is spending about $9 million of its 2018 mill levy override to fund more mental health staff in schools.

Lindstrom called for more racial sensitivity trainings for security and police officers in schools.

Not commenting specifically about the April 24 incident,  APS Security Director Greg Cazzell said that CSOs receive the same training as police school resource officers. Both types of security officers typically go through a biased-based policing training every other year, which included implicit bias training. Cazzell noted that the state education department does not mandate such training for CSOs.

Valdez also wants review of the value of security in schools after the incident, and wishes the treatment of David could have been done differently.

If he did find marijuana in a student’s possession, he would have initiated a conversation to address the root of the student’s drug use, he said. Lindstrom added that the drug search should have been conducted at a different time – not during passing period.

In the meantime, Valdez said he is still searching for answers about what happened that day.

“The ask is a real deep dive into policy and procedure into what APS security does in our schools,” he said, “and making sure that trauma caused by APS security is addressed and not swept under the rug.”