A private company has been hired by the Duluth school district to search East and Denfeld high schools with dogs sniffing for drugs, alcohol and gunpowder.
Interquest Detection Canines has already searched each school a couple of times, after holding assemblies for students to learn what the dogs do. The national company, with franchises in Duluth and Wadena, Minn., is also used by schools in Wrenshall, Hibbing, Chisholm, Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert.
East Principal Danette Seboe has received requests from parents for searches, and Duluth police are able to come only once or twice a year because of scheduling, said Amy Starzecki, assistant superintendent of the Duluth school district.
The idea is to be more "intentional" about preventing drugs, alcohol and weapons from being brought into the schools and their parking lots.
"It's intended to be another layer of prevention, and a deterrent," Starzecki said.
Last year, schools in the district authorized 24 out-of-school suspensions for illegal drugs and three for controlled substances, seven for alcohol and 19 for weapons, according to Minnesota Department of Education data. Three students were expelled for a weapon-related incident.
The service costs $315 per search, and the company is contracted to do five this year at each high school, meaning $3,150 will be spent on the effort.
Three dogs - two Labs and a golden retriever - are currently used by one of the company's northern Minnesota handlers, Sara Fox. The dogs are trained to sit passively if they smell something in a car or locker, or on a student's possessions. They don't search people. Students must leave classrooms as they are searched, and hallway searches are halted if kids pass through.
When police search, schools go into lockdown mode to have more control of the scene, with kids kept inside classrooms, said Duluth Police Sgt. Mike LaFontaine, who is in charge of the school resource officers who work in the schools.
With Fox's service, if a dog detects something in any of the searched places, Fox explains to the student in question that the dog has found something, and the student is given the chance to verify whether it is their coat or car, for example, and what the dog might have found. Fox asks if she can search, and if the student says no, school policy takes over. That's rare, said Fox, who does the inspections as an agent of the school because she is trained in what to look for. While police need a warrant to search vehicles, school officials do not.
If something is found, the disciplinary process begins if deemed necessary. The school resource officer might be notified for possible ticketing or any further legal action, but that's not the intent of the searches.
The dogs look for alcohol, abused medications such as Adderall and Percocet, different kinds of powder used in guns and firecrackers and some types of bombs. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the company used "aggressive alert" dogs, that would dig or scratch when they found something. After 9/11, it was important to use dogs trained to sit passively, so there was less danger of a dog setting off a bomb, Fox said. Because dogs act the same way for any of the things they are trained to seek out, Fox is careful in her searches, she said.
The dogs mostly find alcohol, marijuana and gunpowder, she said, depending on the time of year, and the gunpowder typically stems from a student who hunts.
"We live in Greater Minnesota," she said, and a lot of kids hunt, and sometimes forget they have a gun in their vehicle.
Sometimes the scent of alcohol or marijuana smoke is discovered on a student's possessions, and sometimes there is an explanation other than the student using, she said, such as an unsafe home situation. In those cases, school officials can find ways to help. The searches can also uncover addiction, and school officials have been able to help in those cases, too, Fox said.
Her dogs find things that aren't illegal for everyone, such as alcohol, which is why her services are different than those of police, she said.
The lack of single-area dog expertise is an issue for Denfeld parent Todd Maas. The former K-9 handler for the Superior Police Department who is now an investigator in its narcotics unit is concerned that the dogs aren't trained in exclusive areas, such as drugs. When he worked with drug-seeking dogs, he said, he knew that when a dog indicated it had found something, what it would be.
"These dogs don't know what they are finding," he said, and the results of that could be disastrous if the person searching accidentally sets off a discovered bomb. "That's a real concern that I have."
Fox, who has done searches in northern Minnesota for 19 years, said she often works hand-in-hand with law enforcement. After the Red Lake school shooting in 2005, she was called in by FBI to conduct a search.
Interquest handlers and their dogs must become certified on a yearly basis, and this year are certified by Drugbeat, a national working K-9 certification group based in Missouri. If the handler and dog don't pass a yearly training, they can't work.
The dogs are first trained on the scents of illegal drugs by someone with a Drug Enforcement Administration license, and then continued training is with a fake substance that smells like the real thing.
Fox is not a law enforcement officer, and is licensed as a private investigator in North Dakota, which requires it, but not Minnesota, which does not.
Duluth School Board member Art Johnston has several concerns about the process. He isn't uncomfortable with police searches, but searches by a private company make him uneasy, he said. He'd rather see the money spent on the searches go to drug awareness and prevention, and wants the School Board to have more of a say in who performs the searches.
The Duluth Police Department supports the searches, especially because it is difficult for the department to coordinate multiple searches with its own dogs, LaFontaine said.
"I'm all for deterrents and anything they can do to prevent drugs from getting into schools," he said, and the company "has been used in other places with success. It's just one more resource they can use."
Kim Belcastro, superintendent of the Wrenshall school district, said the company searches the school and its grounds six times a year. She uses it to be "proactive in keeping the school as clean as possible," she said. "The students learn very quickly what is accepted at school and what is not."