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Some Parents, Officials Warm to Drug-Detection Dogs at Santa Barbara High Schools

Dos Pueblos High student survey finds overwhelming opposition ahead of next month's school board debate

A Santa Barbara Unified School District proposal to have drug-detection dogs randomly search high school classrooms will go back before the Board of Trustees in November after officials get feedback from the community and more specifics from the company that would provide the service.

District student services director Marlin Sumpter was asked to look into the idea after a trustee received a brochure from a drug-detection dog company. He said he was not aware the pitch wasn’t a new one.

The issue was first brought up about seven years ago, but it received a lukewarm reception at the time, former school board member Lynn Rodriguez told Noozhawk. She said then-San Marcos High Principal Craig Morgan had a good experience with having drug-detection dogs at his previous district, but the topic was never even voted on by the board since preliminary discussions didn’t show much support.

“At the time, I’m not sure that parents thought there was a compelling reason to do it,” Rodriguez said.

San Marcos Principal Ed Behrens, who has worked at the school for 15 years, said officials — and parents — obviously don’t want drugs on the campuses. He said the dogs could have a positive impact.

The school currently provides students with handbooks and holds assemblies to clearly communicate campus rules and expectations. The detection dogs program would not be about catching and punishing people, Behrens said, but deterring them from bringing drugs to school in the first place.

“It’s definitely, in my opinion, a move in the right direction,” he said.

With random searches, he added, students who are facing peer pressure would have another way to say no.

The drug-detection program is not more of an issue now than when it was first proposed, Behrens said, but more people at the district have experience with such programs from previous districts, including Sumpter and new schools Superintendent Dave Cash.

“Having people who had experienced positive and beneficial impacts from this brings it back to the forefront,” Behrens said.

Santa Barbara High School Principal John Becchio agreed.

“I think this idea is a good way to provide a preventative measure for having drugs on campus,” Becchio said. “It definitely sends a message to our school community, and the greater Santa Barbara community, that we are serious about our campuses not being a space where we will tolerate drug activity.”

In May, the district took a closer look at two companies offering “canine contraband detection,” both with similar services and price. Sumpter recommended Interquest Detection Canines since its client list included schools in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including Bishop Diego High School.

School board policy does authorize having specially trained dogs sniff out and alert staff to substances that are illegal or at least illegal on campuses. The dogs would search classrooms at random and areas like parking lots, Sumpter said.

Interquest Detection Canines uses nonaggressive Labrador and golden retrievers that are always on a leash and respond to the presence of substances by sitting down, as they showed in a June demonstration at the district. The dogs are trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, alcoholic beverages, gunpowder and frequently abused prescription medications like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin.

Two half-day visits per month at each high school campus would cost $1,230 per month, officials say.

Sumpter said there were 300 alcohol- and drug-related incidents at the three high school campuses last year, a figure that includes students in possession, under the influence or selling drugs.

At a Sept. 27 school board meeting to consider the proposal, trustees had some concerns and asked what would happen if a dog responded positively to a teacher’s belongings — a situation that hasn’t been resolved. While being a deterrent to bring substances to school, trustee Monique Límon said the program would do nothing about the problem of drug and alcohol use by teenagers.

If the board decides to approve the proposal, there will be public demonstrations and discussions at the schools to explain how the program works, Sumpter said.

Since the Board of Trustees asked for more outreach, Cash has been meeting with school parent-teacher-student associations and English learner advisory committees at the campuses.

This time around, Rodriguez said she would trust the principals’ judgment if they said the dogs would help push drugs out of local schools.

During her time on the school board, she said she was more concerned about weapons on campus. She said she wishes the program could work as a deterrent for more than just drugs as other items could be discovered in the search.

Mark Ingalls, the father of two Santa Barbara High students and a past president of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation, said there seems to be less pushback than with the previous attempt.

He said the Santa Barbara Education Foundation would be interested in talking with the district about policy changes and suggested a larger discussion is in order.

“The solutions are in the dialogue,” he said, “and I hope that the students would be part of that dialogue as well since they’re the ones we’re asking to conform and be held accountable.”

Student reporters with Dos Pueblos High’s Charger Account surveyed five classes of their peers on the subject of drug-detection dogs and found overwhelming opposition. In all, the proposal attracted 110 votes against it and 32 for it, with most concerns focused on the cost.

“I think it’s stupid because it’s a waste of money,” junior Noah Zimmerman told The Charger Account. “We could be using the money for something more beneficial.”

Senior Ryan Peters said the presence of the dogs will keep people from bringing their drugs to school, and senior Scott Terry said he was “only OK with it if we can pet the dogs.”

Many people are still reserving judgment, perhaps because there haven’t been any presentations to the public.

Cash met with the San Marcos High PTSA last week, and president Cristy Pugh said parents asked about the accuracy of the dogs’ findings and results in other school districts.

Feedback was mostly positive, but no group opinion was made, she said.

Dos Pueblos Principal Shawn Carey said she is waiting to comment until the school board and district management make a decision on the proposal.

Data compiled by the California Department of Education shows that, for 2009-2010, there were 40 expulsions and 532 violence/drug-related suspensions in the junior high and high schools, out of a total enrollment of 9,882. Sumpter didn’t have specific data for alcohol- or drug-related expulsions and wasn’t sure if there has been any significant difference in incidents since 2004.

In the 2004-2005 year, however, there were 636 violence/drug-related suspensions and 78 expulsions out of a total enrollment of 10,632 for junior high and high schools.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

1-Interquest K-9 Contraband Detection Demonstration

 

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