By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Five police drug-sniffing dogs were brought into Pinkerton Academy yesterday morning for a random sweep of classrooms, lockers and student backpacks for the first of what school officials vow will be an increased and ongoing vigilance at keeping drugs off school grounds.
“This is the first time we've done this, and it won't be the last,” said Pinkerton headmaster Mary Anderson, who answered questions about the sweep yesterday afternoon.
“Drugs will not be tolerated. That is the message to the kids. We will do our due diligence. We want the drugs out of school, period,” Anderson said.
Although police said there were four “hits,” meaning the dogs who are trained to sniff out narcotics signaled that they smelled something, no drugs were found. Focus was on the Spaulding Center, where about 700 students were settled into their morning classes when the fire alarm went off around 9 a.m.
Anderson said the building was selected because it is one of the larger buildings. The sweep was not announced to students or staff until after the alarm was sounded.
“Very few people knew in advance,” Anderson said.
Teachers received a school-wide e-mail immediately after the alarm went off, and parents were also alerted by way of an automated phone message, explaining what was going on at the school in anticipation of student text messages and phone calls to one another, or to parents.
Anderson said she has been wanting to bring in the police dogs since fall, when she first contacted Derry police. Because Derry does not have police dogs, they contacted state police, who arranged for the five dogs, which are trained to pick up on marijuana, cocaine, heroin and most pharmaceuticals.
Anderson said she got a call last week from Derry Police letting her know that there was an opening in the schedule, and to prepare for yesterday's sweep.
“It takes a lot of research. There are a lot of policies involved. Other schools have had problems with lawsuits. We learned from their mistakes,” said Anderson.
She was referring to drug sweeps at other New Hampshire high schools that prompted protests from parents who complained over perceived violation of their childrens' Fourth Amendment rights, including an unsuccessful 2007 lawsuit brought against ConVal Regional High School by parents.
In the letter sent to parents, five bulleted points underscored the legality of the sweep –among them, that a sweep using dogs is not considered a search under the Fourth Amendment, that an “alert” from a drug-sniffing dog gives police and school officials reasonable suspicion to search a student's property, and no warrant is needed by school officials to conduct the search.
State Police Sgt. Lawrence Bolduc said given the size of the building being searched and yesterday's extreme warm conditions, they would consider using additional dogs in future sweeps, to improve efficiency. Five dogs – three state police dogs and one dog each from Hudson Police and Weare Police -- were used for yesterday's sniff-out, which took about 50 minutes.
“It's a 130,000-square-foot building. If you've ever seen a K9 at work, those dogs are focused, but working in those conditions, it starts to burn the dogs out,” Bolduc said.
One parent of a Pinkerton student, who did not want to be identified, said he got a phone message at about 9:15 a.m. informing him of the sweep – about the same time his younger daughter was completing a “drug use” survey at West Running Brook Middle School.
Anderson said about 40 students per year are sent home from school for drug-related issues. If any student had been found in possession of drugs yesterday, they would have been arrested on the spot.
“Absolutely – it's a school violation,” Anderson said.
She said whether a student is expelled depends on the offense, including the quantity of drugs in their possession and if there is intent to sell the drugs.
“I have expelled students for drugs before,” Anderson said.
Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas said the police dogs used in the sweep were provided “as an assist” to Pinkerton Academy.
“The agencies they work for compensate them. This is not extra work for the K9s and the school does not get billed for the assist, nor do we,” Thomas said.