Rochester Public Schools has a new weapon in its arsenal to keep illegal drugs out of schools. His name is Chase, a Belgian Malinois whose nose is so keen that it can detect the scent of a narcotic an hour after it has been removed from a can.
The Rochester school district for the first time plans to use Chase and other drug-sniffing canines to prevent and keep illegal drugs out of its three high schools.
"I guess my message to students is: We don't want drugs in our schools," Rochester Police Sgt. Mike Drees, who oversee the department's K-9 unit, told the Rochester School Board at Tuesday's meeting. "If we have to have drugs somewhere, go back to the dark alleys and dark corners and hide where police officers are trained to locate you."
Rochester Superintendent Michael Muñoz's decision to take a more aggressive stance on drugs in the district's schools was first announced Monday night in emails sent out to parents of students at the three high schools, where the searches will be conducted. In the email, Muñoz said, the drug-sniffing dogs would be used "in the near future" in the high schools, and that schools would be in a lockdown drill during the search to minimize distraction to students.
Southeastern Minnesota districts have used K-9s in the past. Drees said his dogs have conducted searches in Dover-Eyota, St. Charles and Byron schools. But the use of such dogs would be a first for Rochester schools.
"My whole purpose of this is prevention," Muñoz said. "It's about creating a safe learning environment, and this a piece of that."
Rochester district leaders and Rochester police have been talking about using drug dogs in the schools at least since last summer. Rochester Police Sgt. Eli Umpierre, who oversees the schools' liaison officers program, said she first broached the idea with Muñoz soon after he came aboard as the district's new leader.
"It's something that I have felt should be in the school district for a number of years," she said.
School and police officials say it's hard to state with precision the scope of the drug problem in Rochester schools. Umpierre said she wasn't aware of any statistical data to compare with previous years or that quantify the issue. But she said you can talk to any student who attends Rochester or a school the size of Rochester, and they would likely acknowledge an awareness of the presence of illegal drugs in the schools.
"I think you could ask any current or former student of this or any other school district about our size and you'll be widely told that, 'yes, we are aware that there are drugs being used and sold in our schools,'" Umpierre said.
One southeastern Minnesota district to employ such canines this year is Kingsland School District.
Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald said the program has had a "positive effect" on students and the learning climate. Once or twice a month a drug dog makes an unannounced visit to the Kingsland school, sniffing locker vents and backpacks and nosing around the student parking lot.
But measuring the effectiveness of such programs in any empirical sense is "difficult" because officials often aren't certain of the prevalence of the problem in the first place. McDonald said data privacy concerns prevented him from sharing information about the number of times dogs have alerted and found illegal drugs on Kingsland school premises. He said the district plans to continue the program in the fall.
"I believe it creates more of a sense of safety and security, in helping keep our schools hopefully drug free and creating a positive learning environment," he said.
Unlike Rochester, whose drug-fighting program will be a collaboration between the district and Rochester police, Kingsland employs a private firm called Interquest Detention Canines to make monthly and twice monthly visits.
During Tuesday's board meeting, Drees demonstrated how Chase went about finding drugs. Placing four silver cans on the floor, Drees told the board that he had placed one gram of marijuana inside one of the cans four hours ago, and had taken the marijuana out an hour earlier. Then Chase — who is trained to find marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and methamphetamines — went to work. Darting from can to can like a dog looking for a ball, Chase "alerted" in front of one of the cans to signal that he had found a drug presence.
Rochester district and police officials plan to build awareness about the program in the coming days and weeks. Full-scale assemblies are planned at each of the three high schools, so students can see for themselves how the dogs and their handlers work.
That will be followed by searches of all three high schools sometime in the indefinite future. During the searches, the school will be in lockdown mode and students confined to the classrooms while one or two K-9 units search parking lots, sniff around lockers, and roam common areas such as gyms and cafeterias. If a dog alerts on a locker, that locker and the lockers on each side will be searched. It is unclear at this point whether such searches will become a regular practice in the schools.
Drees anticipated that some parents will complain that their child's civil rights are being trampled by the searches, but he said the intent is to create a safe learning environment without imposing undue pressures on students.
Umpierre emphasized that the purpose of the program is not to ring up more arrests.
"It is not our goal to create more criminal charges against any student or any person in the Rochester Public Schools," Umpierre said. "It is our goal to prevent, by use of awareness, that a dog could be brought into the school to look for drugs, so they do not enter the school."
Apr 10, 2012, 10:47 pm
By Matthew Stolle
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN