Pubdate: Wed, 20 Sep 2006
Source: Ashland City Times (TN)
Copyright: 2006 Ashland City Times
Author: Kate Howard, Staff Writer


Regular Searches Key Part Of Prevention Strategy

With drug-related problems on the rise in Metro high  schools, 
administrators are turning to the regular use  of drug-sniffing dogs 
as another tactic to keep the  drug trade out of schools.

This month, a trained dog and its handler scoured the  hallways, 
parking lots and classrooms of 11 Metro  middle and high schools 
looking for trace scents of  illegal drugs or alcohol.

And while most Midstate school directors say they use  canines 
occasionally, Metro officials say they plan to  keep running the 
random, unannounced searches regularly  to see if the threat of 
getting caught helps curtail  the flow of illegal drugs.

"This strategy is not so much to catch them as it is to  prevent 
them," said Ralph Thompson, assistant  superintendent of student 
services for Metro schools.  "We want students and parents to know 
we're taking this  very seriously."

While classes are in session, the dogs sniff along  lockers in the 
hallways. They occasionally enter a  classroom once the students have 
left the room -- and  left all their property, such as backpacks or 
purses,  behind to be sniffed. Administrative offices as well as 
staff and student parking lots are fair game for the search dogs, 
too, Thompson said.

If the dog picks up a scent, security officers then  have cause to 
open a locker or request that a student  unlock his or her car. 
Anyone caught with drugs is  expelled for a year and sent to an 
alternative school,  according to Metro's zero-tolerance policy.

So far, the search dogs have detected a few scents that  could have 
been several days old, but no contraband.

"We're excited obviously that we haven't found anything  yet, but ... 
the goal is not necessarily to find anything so much as to prevent 
students from bringing items to campus," Thompson said.

Overall offenses involving alcohol, tobacco or other  illegal drugs 
were down districtwide last school year,  but the incidents rose by 
32 percent in Metro's high  schools. Thompson attributes part of the 
rise to  increased weapons searches that often turn up illegal  substances.

School resource officers who work full time in the  schools often 
conduct weapons searches randomly as  students get off the bus or 
walk into school, Thompson  said. Although Metro police have 
qualified canines, the  drug-sniffing searches are being performed by 
a hired contractor because police officers can't do random 
drug  searches without cause, said Lt. Coleman Beard of  Metro's 
School Resource Officer unit.

"As law enforcement professionals, we would have to  have probable 
cause or a warrant to do a search like  that," Beard said.

But for school officials, the threshold for searches  drops from 
"probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion"  that drugs may be in the 
school, Metro safety and  security director Steve Keel said.

The legality concerns Bob Teague, whose oldest son  recently 
graduated from Hillwood High School. He said  drugs were never a 
concern for him because his children  were on the straight and 
narrow, but if he learned that  drug dogs were sniffing around his 
younger son's Bellevue Middle School classroom, Teague said 
he'd  wonder if the department was overstepping.

"It seems too heavy-handed at this point to go in and  randomly 
search a school grounds unless there's  probable cause," Teague said. 
"The threat of a search  is already there, and I think that should be 
a sufficient deterrent."

But students like Jaleesa Webster welcome any  enforcement that leads 
to a safer school. Webster, 17,  is a junior at Pearl-Cohn High 
School, where there were  16 drug-related offenses last school year. 
She said  she's looking forward to seeing drug-sniffing dogs in  her 

"I don't do drugs, so it doesn't matter to me," she  said. "I think 
they should be doing this every day."

More cameras in areas that seem to have drug activity  and continued 
random weapon searches also are on the  safety agenda this year, 
Thompson said. The privately  contracted dog handler is paid 
$225-$300 per search.  The district plans to put out a request for 
proposals next year if it decides to continue the searches, Keel  said.

For some school districts, cost is the biggest barrier  to stepping 
up drug enforcement. Drugs are a problem in  Dickson County like 
everywhere else, Schools Director  Charlie Daniel said, but budget 
cuts have left the  district with just one police resource officer at 
the  alternative school. The other 13 schools have no  security staff.

"Our schools are safe, and we do a good job monitoring  with our 
existing staff," Daniel said. "But I have  heard comments from 
parents who've made statements that  they'd like to see SROs in our 
schools and more  security."

In Sumner County, drug dogs occasionally are utilized  for random 
searches at the high schools. But the  schools have no new 
initiatives that deal with drug  enforcement because there's not 
enough money to go  around, spokesman Steve Doremus said.

"Due to cuts in federal funding, we're struggling to  maintain the 
same level of programs that we've had in  the past," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Elaine