MOUNT PLEASANT - The text message from her teenage daughter took Elizabeth Moffly by surprise: Wando High School had been locked down and police with dogs were swarming the campus.
Students weren't told exactly what was going on, but school staff threatened to confiscate phones from anyone who tried to use one. This alarmed Moffly's daughter, a senior at Wando.
"She said it seemed like half the police force was there," said Moffly, a Charleston County School Board member.
Moffly soon learned that Mount Pleasant police had arranged with the school district to conduct a random search for drugs and weapons in Wando's student parking lot. The Dec. 4 search produced some marijuana, a knife and two arrests.
School officials and police said the operation was a preventive effort aimed at ensuring a safe environment on the campus of the state's largest school. They said it was done by the book and with little disruption to classroom studies.
"My number one priority will always to be to keep our children safe," Wando Principal Lucy Beckham said, "and we will do whatever we have to do to keep them safe."
To Moffly, however, the tactic smacked of an intrusive over-reach by law enforcement. She said police should concentrate on protecting kids from outside dangers, not subject them to unjustified, mass searches.
"It feels like my kids are in jail," she said. "To me, it's very disheartening that we are using the police like that on our children. We send our children to school to get an education, not to criminalize them by searching their belongings without probable cause."
Wando is hardly alone in using such methods. Other schools in Charleston County have hosted periodic police sweeps, as have Berkeley and Dorchester county schools.
These tactics have become increasingly common across the nation in an edgy age where concerns about drug abuse and campus violence like the Newtown school massacre have communities fearing for students' safety and well-being.
Authorities in Ocean County, N.J., recently brought police and drug-sniffing dogs through a high school to counter a perceived narcotics epidemic, mainly involving heroin use. Well-to-do Litchfield, Conn., is mulling a similar plan.
Students recently surveyed at a middle school in Michigan said they actually felt safer when drug dogs were around. And The San Antonio (Texas) Express News reported that drug-sniffing dogs have been commonplace for school districts there for decades.
But the searches haven't been without controversy.
In 2003, a Goose Creek police raid at Stratford High School made national headlines and led to a $1.6 million class-action lawsuit settlement.
About 140 Stratford students were present when police burst into a school hallway shouting, waving guns and forcing some students to the ground while a barking dog sniffed for weapons and drugs. None were found.
The school's longtime principal resigned in the wake of the raid, and in the settlement that followed, the Berkeley County School District and Goose Creek police agreed to change their policies for drug sweeps. The Goose Creek Police Department, for instance, agreed to undergo additional training and limit the use of dogs around students.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, represented Stratford students as one of Motley Rice's lead lawyers on the case. He has received several calls in the years since the Stratford incident regarding concerns about drug sweeps, but he has encountered nothing on the same scale. He said police "hit that school like a crack house."
"Everyone is against drugs in school. We can all agree on that," he said. "But we also have to recognize that students deserve protection under the Constitution, and they don't shed those rights just by walking through the schoolhouse door."
Goose Creek police did not return an email seeking comment on the matter.
South Carolina law gives authorities the power to conduct a "reasonable search" of anyone who comes onto a school's campus. School leaders or their designees can search lockers, desks, vehicles, purses and wallets "with or without" probable cause. State law prohibits only strip searches.
That means although students have a Fourth Amendment right to privacy, the courts have ruled that they may be searched as long as the search is reasonable at its inception and in its scope, said Scott Price, attorney for the South Carolina School Boards Association.
"They have the right to conduct a search, but in terms of safely meeting the constitutional standard, reasonable suspicion is something any entity would want to have going into the operation," he said.
The association gives guidance to districts statewide on how to follow that law, and it does so in the form of a model policy that delves into more specifics. Price said it provides a checklist that schools can use for searches, and that he hasn't had many inquiries about it.
Berkeley County School District spokeswoman Susan Haire said her district has seldom used police sweeps at schools in recent years, and there is no current plan to change that. The sole search during the past two years took place at Hanahan High School in a response to a complaint about possible narcotics at the school. Hanahan police conducted the search, which turned up no drugs, she said.
Searching local schools
Other area police agencies said they usually conduct sweeps at the invitation of school officials on an as-needed basis. Strict guidelines then govern how the operation is conducted, they said. Charleston police, for example, plan the operations with school officials and never allow the drug dog to come in contact with students, department spokesman Charles Francis said.
Jeff Scott, the director of security and emergency management for Charleston County schools, said the searches with dogs are done at the district's request and with its consent. Charleston school leaders try to coordinate that kind of search at every high school at least once each year, but that hasn't happened.
Scott said the searches are one of two prevention strategies used to create an environment where students feel uneasy about bringing weapons, drugs or any other contraband to schools. The second strategy in the use of metal detectors, which are used randomly.
"The purpose is to make it uncomfortable," Scott said. "If we don't find anything, everyone knows we were there, and they don't know when we're going to show up and come back."
Charleston police this year conducted searches in March at West Ashley and St. John's high schools. Nothing was found, Francis said.
Charleston County Sheriff's Maj. Eric Watson said he wasn't aware of any school searches conducted by his agency this year. A few have been done in past years, following standard guidelines that generally limit searches to common areas such as hallways and locker rooms, he said.
"If we conduct a search in a classroom, the students are never present, and they will be instructed by a representative from the school to leave their bags in the classroom," he said. "In the past, we have yielded some drugs as well as weapons."
Dorchester 2 schools don't have a regular schedule for sweeps, staging them more as problems or issues arise. Then, principals work with the county sheriff's office and police in North Charleston and Summerville to plan their sweeps well in advance, to ensure that the operations are done "in a very orderly fashion" away from students in classrooms, said Mike Turner, a former sheriff's major who serves as schools' security coordinator.
"That's pretty much the norm across the country," he said.
The Wando sweep
Mount Pleasant police Maj. Stan Gragg wouldn't say what prompted the recent search at Wando, only that "it was a planned operation as part of the ongoing effort which will continue to ensure a violence- and drug-free environment."
Eight officers, two K-9 handlers and two dogs participated in the sweep, Gragg said.
At Wando High, Scott said the campus is so large that they couldn't have searched everywhere unless they had 15 dogs. They couldn't even search the entire student parking area because it was too big - one lot has 780 vehicles - so they relegated their search to a portion of that.
Schools are kept on lockdown during the searches as a safety precaution and as a way of controlling the campus, Scott said. Beckham said the sweep lasted about 90 minutes while classroom study continued. Students were told not to use their phones to avoid alerting those who might have drugs or weapons in the parking area. "But they are not supposed to use their phones in class anyway, so that's a bit redundant," she said.
Reaction to search
The response to the search at Wando High has varied. Beckham said Wando hadn't conducted such an operation in several years, and she received several positive comments from parents. The only complaint she heard of came from Moffly, who has been critical of an ongoing police presence in schools.
Some share Moffly's concern with the way police handled the incident. County school board member Chris Collins called the Wando search unwarranted and unnecessary. Bringing dogs on campus brings to mind situations involving violence and riots, and these students weren't criminals or protesters, he said.
"I don't think it's justified when you're dealing with children," he said. "It's an unnecessary liability. We shouldn't bother with it at all."
Searches with dogs can traumatize kids, and it's going overboard, he said.
Collins has taken issue in the past with police criminalizing juvenile behavior and intervening in discipline matters that should be handled by the school.
Others felt the search was long overdue and that it was a way to ensure school safety.
"We live in a very different world from when our parents grew up, and even when I went to high school," said county school board member Craig Ascue. "We want safe schools. ... If that means doing a drug dog sweep, then that's fine."
Barbara Mercer's 16-year-old daughter attends Wando High, and she said she received a text message from her daughter when the search was happening. Her daughter wasn't alarmed, and neither was Mercer.
She has had a child at Wando for the past seven years, and she said she has confidence that the administration handled the situation appropriately.
She appreciated what may have been a difficult decision to make in doing the search, and it made the point that the school was serious about preventing drugs and weapons on campus, she said.
"For me, my bottom line is the safety of children," she said. "If people are bringing drugs or weapons that the dogs would uncover, I want that turned up and taken out of there."