Drug-sniffing dogs coming back to campuses

Dogs able to sniff out drugs, alcohol and gunpowder will return to Newport-Mesa Unified middle and high schools in the fall.

The district board voted 6 to 0 on Tuesday to renew a contract with Interquest Detection Canines, a San Diego-based drug detection company that the district began using this school year to deter students from bringing illicit items on campus. Trustee Katrina Foley was absent.

Newport-Mesa will spend $27,000 for the dogs to visit Estancia, Costa Mesa, Back Bay, Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and Early College high schools, as well as Ensign Intermediate and TeWinkle Middle schools, during the next school year, according to a staff report.

The canines are trained to smell students' belongings and alert their handlers by sitting down or pawing the ground.

This indicates the possible presence of drugs, alcohol or gunpowder — or their lingering scents — giving school administrators probable cause to search the belongings, Interquest President Christine Schulz said in a previous interview.

"I'm not sure that we'll ever stop everyone from bringing [illegal items] on campus," said school board member Martha Fluor. "However, the dogs provide another reason not to bring those things on campus and not to use them outside of school."

When the dogs identify an item that is not allowed on campus, the student is escorted to the school office for counseling and further investigation.

The searches have led to disciplinary action in some cases, said Phil D'Agostino, director of student services.

The dogs visited Newport-Mesa secondary schools 50 times during the 2013-14 school year and searched more than 7,500 students' belongings, according to D'Agostino's presentation to the board.

Administrators confiscated illicit drugs, mainly marijuana, from 14 students and "ancillary contraband" — a weapon, tobacco product or gang-related paraphernalia — from 12 students, the report states.

The dogs did not alert administrators to the presence of alcohol or gunpowder on students this year.

However, the dogs reacted to residual smells from drugs, alcohol or medication lingering on students 33 times during the searches, according to the report.

"It led to several conversations about why the student's backpack smelled like marijuana," D'Agostino said.

D'Agostino called the program a "valuable deterrent" and urged trustees to approve Interquest's services for another year.

"The real bang for our buck is that we're creating a message and deterring students from bringing alcohol and drugs on campus," he said.

The canines alerted officials to illicit items most often at Estancia High School this year, according to the report.

However, D'Agostino said the results may not be an accurate representation of the amount of drugs at the high school.

This year, administrators at each of the schools were responsible for selecting classrooms for searches.

The lack of a consistent procedure could show data that may lead people to make unfair conclusions about the severity of issues at a particular school, D'Agostino said.

To combat this problem next year, the district will come up with a consistent search process for all of the schools, he said.

District officials are also contemplating allowing the dogs to search lockers at the school in addition to student's personal belongings.

"If kids know that the dogs will also be sniffing at their lockers, it provides an added deterrent," Fluor said.

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