Searches of school lockers at standstill

Ron Okamura
Ron Okamura

By Teri Okita – bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii's Board of Education revised its Chapter 19 policy on student conduct and discipline – allowing for searches inside school lockers. But more than a year after the policy was revised, administrators have still not started the controversial inspections.

"We haven't established protocols to go into the lockers. We haven't established what's going to happen, how we gonna do it? What happens if we do find things?" explains McKinley High School President Ron Okamura.

Okamura says there's got to be substantial evidence or reasonable suspicion of contraband for administrators to look inside lockers. School administrators are still waiting on statewide protocol on how, exactly, to go about the searches. Educators say they want to do this fairly and consistently.

"It goes through a whole process. Public feedback and other things have to take place," says Okamura, "so we're not violating civil rights. We're not violating any kind of privacy or due process kinds of things. So, it's kind of a lengthy process. People say, "Oh, just do it, but no, it takes a little bit more than that."

The BOE's revised policy states, "School lockers provided to the students on campus are subject to opening and inspection by school officials at any time with or without cause, provided that the searches are not because of the student's race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, gender identity and expression, religion, disability, or sexual orientation."

Proponents said they needed the changes to prevent and deter students from bringing drugs, alcohol, and dangerous items onto campus. But opponents say it erodes the students' right to privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has been a vocal critic of locker searches and the BOE's policy change. On Monday, it reiterated its position. "The old rules already gave school officials ample ability to keep our kids safe while preserving their constitutional rights to privacy and free speech. These changes are a dreadful civics lesson for upcoming generations - that government surveillance trumps personal privacy."

The ACLU told Hawaii News Now it will continue to monitor the policy change to ensure no student's rights are violated.

Okamura has been a strong advocate of locker searches and a drug-sniffing dog program that has been in place at five Hawaii schools for a couple of years. A trained golden retriever named Custer canvasses campuses and hunts for contraband. Twice a month, Custer and his handler make the rounds at McKinley high school's campus – searching the grounds for drugs. But because no specific guidelines are currently set, Custer is not allowed to sniff lockers, personal backpacks, or the students themselves.

Policy may be on the books, but the protocol to execute is not.

School administrators say they're working on a rough draft right now that all principals across the state can use as a guideline for searching lockers. It will include input from the attorney general's office and public comments, as well. They say it could be mid-school year or later before they have the protocol in place to actually start locker searches.

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