Contrasted to a year ago, when parents and school employees objected to the notion of having police drug-sniffing dogs patrol school hallways, Monday night’s first official discussion of Sag Harbor School District’s proposed new policy of doing just that generated nary a peep of opposition.
Board members, who largely said they are now on board with Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Gratto’s proposal to use drug dogs as a deterrent to students bringing illegal substances to school with them—something he first brought forward last year—listened intently as Inspector Stuart Cameron of the Suffolk County Police Department’s K-9 unit explained the procedure that has been used in other schools on Long Island, including at least three on the East End.
The inspector said that County Police conducted 10 dog patrol operations at schools in the last two years, in a total of seven school districts. In two cases, arrests were made for marijuana possession as a result of the patrols.
The typical procedure is that the dogs are brought into a school shortly after a class period has begun, while students are in classrooms. Administrators are asked to issue a lockdown order so that students are not wandering the hallways; all K-9 unit dogs are trained to bite perceived assailants, said Inspector Cameron, so police do not want students interacting with them in any way.
The dogs would be led through the hallways, past students’ lockers. The officer said that the dogs occasionally detect the presence of drugs in lockers that are ultimately found not to contain any, simply because the dogs’ sensitive noses can detect residue of drugs that could be years old. He said there should be no suspicion of students whose lockers produce indications but are found not to contain drugs.
“We might walk into a house and say, ‘Oh, I smell beef stew,’” Inspector Cameron said. “The dog would smell the carrots and the celery or the onions—they’re that sensitive.”
Dr. Gratto asked about the possibility that dogs could detect drugs in one of the occupied classrooms if a student had them in his or her possession. The inspector said that was a possibility, but that the dogs would not be led into classrooms. He said officials could be informed if the dogs indicate to their handlers that they smell drugs in a classroom or other part of the building, and police would let the school officials handle the situation as they saw fit.
In order to qualify for the County Police drug dog program, which is provided free of charge because the K-9 unit officers use the searches as training for their dogs, the district would be required to send a letter to all parents in the district informing them of the policy and notifying them that the students’ lockers would be sniffed at some point, likely multiple times, during the school year.
When he introduced the policy earlier this month, Dr. Gratto said he saw the dog patrols more as a deterrent to students bringing drugs into the school than as an effort to locate drugs in the school. If students knew there was a chance that the dogs would be in the school, they would be less likely to bring drugs with them.
“Our interest is not in catching people, it is to deter,” the superintendent said on Monday night. “So they would be recommended to seek counseling.”
In 2010, a 16-year-old female Pierson student was arrested for selling marijuana to another student, just 13 years old.
The School Board is slated to hold another discussion of the proposed policy at its next meeting, on February 6, before voting on whether or not to implement it.