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Indiana school district adds drug-sniffing dog for searches

November 28, 2018

DUNLAP, Ind. (AP) — While students are working in class, Concord Community Schools’ newest addition is also at work. Jax, a 2-year-old drug-sniffing dog, has been regularly patrolling the district’s schools since August.

Drug-sniffing dogs are becoming more common in schools that want to enhance security. That, Assistant Superintendent Tim Tahara said, is why the district adopted its own police department two years ago. It’s grown to now include three officers and Jax.

Jax works as part of a unit with Officer Darrin Tucker and is certified in narcotics and obedience. Tucker said that while the dog was trained in partnership with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, it belongs to the district.

“The No. 1 goal of the school system is to promote a safe learning environment, and obviously one of those factors is staying drug free,” Tucker said. “Narcotics in schools at this age is common in a lot of high schools. Jax is a result of us having to deal with past drug cases.”

Jax is just as much of an officer as the others. Tucker said the dog is never off duty. He is either sniffing, training or resting from sniffing, which for Jax, is akin to a 400-meter race because it requires so much energy.

When Jax is sniffing in schools, Tucker said the officers try to make it clear to students that the dog is not a pet.

“One of the dangers of school K-9s is that they become a sort of mascot,” he said.

At the beginning of the school year, Tucker said, he explained to students what to expect from a drug-sniffing dog in school.

“We laid out that at certain times you can expect to be asked to leave the classroom,” he said. “We give them expectations that we’ll be out in the parking lot searching cars throughout the school day. If we get a report of a student possibly possessing drugs, we call them down and use Jax to search the bag.”

Concord Police Chief Nic Minder said Jax conducts random searches for drugs on school property each month, but he declined to say exactly how many times the dog has found them since he started in the district in August.

The Tribune requested a copy of the police department’s daily log, which contained information about two such incidents.

One was on Aug. 22, when Jax was alerted to drugs in a vehicle in the parking lot of Concord High School. A search of it concluded with officers smelling burnt marijuana and finding a “leafy green substance” later identified as marijuana in the vehicle. Officers also found a small digital scale in the trunk.

The other incident occurred during Jax’s daily vehicle searches. The canine searched seven vehicles and alerted to the “odor of burnt marijuana” inside the vehicle.

In addition to drugs, Tucker said earlier this fall that Jax would soon be able to sniff out the presence of vape pens and Juuls. The district has a zero-tolerance policy for vaping. Students younger than 18 caught with vape paraphernalia will get a legal citation. Those older than 18 will have their devices confiscated and their parents notified, he said.

As for how the district pays for its own police department, Tahara said it’s via an operating referendum — tax hike — approved by voters.

“We were thankful to have (a school resource officer),” Tahara said, “but ... in today’s society, we wanted to always have a police presence on hand. We wanted to have policemen to provide safety for our students and staff. We didn’t want to have security officers that wouldn’t have powers to arrest. We have tried to outfit our police department as well as the county sheriff.”

From 2006 to 2017, Tahara said the district used a school resource officer from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department.

“It was one person, and we would always try to get a grant from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to help offset the cost of that officer,” he said. “We shared the cost of the officer with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department.”

In 2017, the school board voted unanimously to hire Tucker and Minder full time. Both are compensated through a combined salary of $128,000, a phone stipend and a take-home vehicle. Since then, the district has also hired a third officer, Brittaney Dilley.

The dog, Tahara said, is actually cheaper than hiring a fourth officer. The district paid $4,500 from FM Canine in Michigan for Jax, along with $2,000 to $3,000 for training and $1,000 to $2,000 for veterinarian visits, food and other expenses.

While Tucker said no one has directly complained about the district’s decision to implement a drug-sniffing dog, some have wondered if any sort of police canine in schools is a step too far.

“I’ve heard third party of people saying that (a drug sniffing-dog) is too much to put into a school, but I haven’t heard anyone specifically tell me anything or state that they didn’t like Jax,” he said.

However, at least some of the students at Concord High School look favorably upon Jax; Alec Scheimann said most students see the dog as happy and mild mannered.

“If his purpose is to keep illegal materials out of school, then that keeps everyone safe,” he said.

Cammie Montgomery agreed and she said that Jax’s presence is a welcome sight for students and parents who are concerned about school safety. She said, if anything, parents are more upset about the existence of illegal drugs within schools than the drug-sniffing dog who finds them.

“Most parents and students don’t think the dog is bad, they think that it’s bad to have to do these (searches) in schools,” she said.

Tahara said “I wouldn’t want to presume to speak for other districts but for Concord, we feel great about having our own police department and drug-sniffing K-9. Our goal is that students, parents and staff don’t have to deal with illegal drugs when they come here. Jax is a good preventative tool to that goal.”

Steve Thalheimer, superintendent of nearby Fairfield Community Schools, said their district has opted to continue using a school resource officer from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department.

“We appreciate the support from the department, and for a district our size, this partnership works very well,” he said. “If we conduct drug searches, the department brings in their dogs, and at times they help us audit our safety protocols and provide extra officers when needed.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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