Canines to be called in for added safety measure at local schools

Dogs able to sniff out drugs, alcohol and gunpowder will pay surprise visits to Newport-Mesa Unified schools beginning in October.

The goal is to deter students from bringing dangerous items on campus.

School board trustees unanimously approved the contract for a private detection canine company, Interquest, to search schools during its Tuesday meeting.

Interquest is a private company that specializes in canine detection with experience in several other Orange County districts, including Tustin Unified and Anaheim Union.

The dogs will likely focus on middle and high schools, but may visit elementary schools as well.

The non-aggressive golden retrievers or Labradors will spend 20 days per month searching various schools in the district at random, Supt. Fred Navarro said Friday.

Navarro was exposed to the canines while working as a principal in another district.

"It turned out to be a very effective way of keeping drugs off campus," he said. "It sent a message to students not to bring those types of things on campus."

The district decided to utilize detection dogs in response to an increasing youth drug problem in Newport-Mesa and beyond, Navarro said.

Costa Mesa police arrested a 12-year-old boy on suspicion of bringing a drug-laced brownie to TeWinkle Middle School after several students became sick in April. A similar situation occurred at Pomona Elementary School in March, when a student was arrested after bringing a pot brownie to school.

These instances of drugs on campus were one of several factors that led to the discussion of bringing canines to schools, Navarro said.

"There's been a spike in marijuana use, and the availability of a cheaper type of heroin has brought that drug back on campus," he said.

The canines will not be searching individual students, but will sniff items like backpacks and other belongings present in the classroom.

The dogs are trained to smell illicit items and alert their handler by sitting down or pawing the ground. This indicates the presence of drugs, alcohol or gunpowder or the smell of one of the items is lingering, Interquest's San Diego President Christine Schulz said during a presentation to trustees Tuesday.

This allows school administrators, who will be present during all of the searches, enough evidence to investigate the student's belongings, according to district policy.

This new safety measure comes on the heels of several recent changes to security in Newport-Mesa schools, including a move away from the zero tolerance policy toward restorative justice, which changes the culture of discipline by encouraging students to develop empathy and understand the reasons for their actions.

"It doesn't change consequences," Navarro said. "It teaches them to change behavior."

The Costa Mesa Police Department was also unable to staff school resource officers, or, SROs on Costa Mesa campuses this year, leaving a void in school security.

While the canines weren't selected specifically because of their gunpowder sniffing abilities, Navarro said it's simply a bonus.

"It's nice to have the dogs be trained to smell that," he said. "It's a good preventive measure."

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