School Climate & Safety

In Security Push, More Schools Using Detection Dogs

By Andrew Trotter — June 20, 2006 5 min read

The buffeting hot wind on an early May morning disperses odors quickly in the sunny parking lot, but not too fast for Mike, a 9-year-old black Labrador Retriever who drops to his haunches next to a silver compact car parked in front of Midwest City High School here.

Mike’s handler, Kathy M. Sawyer, recognizes the sudden stillness in the normally hyper drug dog as an “alert,” a signal that he has traced the smell of contraband to that car. Ms. Sawyer pats his head, while a school administrator heads into the school to find the car’s owner.

Ms. Sawyer is the president of Intercept Inc., an Oklahoma City company hired by the Mid-Del school district, just east of this city. She and the small company’s four other handlers take their dogs on regular sniff searches in and around its schools. The firm operates out of a refurbished bungalow in a nearby suburb.

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Rick Bachman, the director of secondary education for the 14,000-student Mid-Del district, says the detection or “sniff” dogs have helped deter students from bringing illicit drugs to school in cars and book bags. The use of the dog teams also lessens a perception among students that administrators are personally motivated to catch students, he suggests.

“When doing drug searches of lockers, the dog’s just smiling,” Mr. Bachman said. “It’s hard [for students] to say that the school is targeting certain students.”

Intercept is part of a detection-dog industry that has gained momentum from publicity about violent incidents in schools, even though schools mainly use the dogs to combat drugs and alcohol on campus, not weapons. Although no industrywide figures are available, companies that perform dog searches say schools are increasingly willing to hire them.

A Growing Industry

In some regions of the United States, the use of dogs on campuses is highly controversial, with concerns about invasion of students’ privacy heightened by news stories of drug dogs that have frightened or even bitten schoolchildren.

But here in Oklahoma, the practice is popular with many school districts and even supported by many students, although some dissent.

Some students credit the visits from the drug dogs with easing peer pressure on them to keep a stash of drugs in their cars or lockers.

“It doesn’t bother me, if they’re trying to keep the school safe,” said Maquiel Matthews, 17, a junior at Midwest City High.

But other students, like Brittany Tinnin, a senior, disapprove.

“I think personally that’s invading people’s property by having dogs sniff other people’s cars,” she said.

The detection-dog companies serving schools run a gamut from mom-and-pop businesses to retired or moonlighting police canine officers, who search industrial sites as well as schools, where different legal standards apply.

One industry leader is Houston-based Interquest Detection Canines, which operates in school districts in 21 states, said Michael Ferdinand, the firm’s co-owner and vice president. IDC, which was founded in 1988, had revenues of about $10 million last year, he said.

Intercept Inc. currently has all the work it can handle from contracts with Mid-Del and 13 other districts in and around Oklahoma City, but it keeps getting requests, said Gary Sawyer, the company’s business manager and Ms. Sawyer’s husband.

Central to the business is the fact that a dog’s nose is thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s is to odors, Mr. Sawyer said. Intercept’s dogs are trained to detect the scents of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, as well as grain alcohol and firearms. (Dogs sniff out firearms by the residue of burnt gunpowder in a gun barrel.)

Intercept’s five drug dogs are all black Labs, a breed chosen because of its friendly nature—essential in a school. It also has a strong hunting instinct and wide availability. Even so, says Gary Sawyer, only one Labrador in 10 makes a good drug dog, which requires a sustained desire to play—what the search is from the dog’s perspective.

Intercept randomly sends two or three drug-dog teams to every school about once every five weeks.

Campus searches typically cover parking lots, student lockers, and school common areas, such as the cafeteria. The dogs do not sniff students directly.

Prom season brings a surge of activity, with a dog and its handler adding another layer of security in schools’ ever-vigilant efforts to keep the dances peaceful and drug- and alcohol-free.

A contract with IDC reportedly involves a cost of about $400 per school visit. Intercept charges between $50 and $75 a visit on an annual contract, depending on travel time, and also searches schools on a one-time basis, Mr. Sawyer said.

Districts usually can cover at least part of the cost of the dog searches with federal drug-abuse-prevention grants.

Alternative to Police

Although local police departments will sometimes bring in their drug dogs for free, some school administrators say they prefer the control they have from hiring their own search teams.

“We never know for sure when police dogs can come,” said Mr. Bachman, the Mid-Del administrator. And a school’s interests in a drug search is often different from that of the police, said Ms. Sawyer of Intercept.

Murphy sniffs for contraband in the lot at Midwest City High School.

“[The police] want to make a bust” of serious offenders, she said. But while the schools want to remove drug pushers and the contraband itself, they also want to identify student “dabblers”—those not yet heavily involved in drugs who can be placed in an assistance program.

Lisa Soronen, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association, said the courts have widely found using dogs to sniff student lockers and cars to be permissible, but not sniffing of students themselves without individualized suspicion. From an abundance of caution, even with such justification, Intercept’s handlers never allow their dogs to initiate contact with students, although students frequently pet the dogs.

A sniff dog is, in a sense, a “four-legged tipster,” said Lawrence F. Rossow, a University of Oklahoma professor who works as a consultant for Intercept. Although not a lawyer, he teaches education law and has written on student search issues.

Back at Midwest City High, one of the school’s vice principals has brought to the parking lot the student whose car drew the attention of Mike the Labrador. The young woman watches as two administrators go through the car’s contents and gather up round seeds that Ms. Sawyer runs through an instant chemical drug test to confirm that they are from marijuana.

The student looks scared. But before she is taken to a school suspension hearing, Ms. Sawyer speaks to her soothingly.

“I told her it was probably some hairy-legged boy in your car who dropped it,” Ms. Sawyer said later. “I like to give them an out—not embarrass them—but it is her car and her responsibility.”

Ms. Sawyer never inquires about the result of suspension hearings, but she guessed that the quantity of marijuana was so small that the student would probably escape suspension.

“The major thing was to get her parents involved, to let them know what is going on with her and her car,” Ms. Sawyer said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as In Security Push, More Schools Using Detection Dogs

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