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School drug sweeps common in Mon Valley

| Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, 12:21 a.m.

Police last week found illegal drugs at Monessen High School and Belle Vernon Area High School and Middle School.

But education officials and police elsewhere also battle school-based drug activity.

Jason Demko, who leads the Belle Vernon Area Drug Task Force, said K-9 officers detected illegal drugs Thursday at the high school and the middle school.

Demko trains K-9 dogs.

After suspected marijuana was found in a locker at the high school, one high school student was suspended and faces possible expulsion.

“We had one hit in each building,” Demko said. “It works out for us, because we keep it completely random. The only people that know when we're going to the school is myself and Lt. (John) Christner of the Rostraver Township police.

“Even the principals don't know when we're coming. That's the way we want it.”

Demko said he could not release the identities of the students involved, and referred inquiries to Christner, who could not be reached by phone Tuesday.

On Friday, Monessen High School student Irvin Kili Green, 18, of 476 Reed Ave. was charged with felony possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.

Monessen School District police Chief John Bachinski filed the charges.

According to an affidavit of probable cause, Monessen K-9 Officer Uri hit on Green's camouflage backpack during a classroom search that was part of a planned sweep of the high school.

With Bachinski present, Principal Brian Sutherland searched the backpack and found three, individually wrapped baggies containing approximately 3.1 grams of suspected marijuana, the affidavit states.

Sutherland said the planned searches are consistent with procedures in other districts.

“Typically, we would like to do three to four sweeps per year,” Sutherland said. “It's always tough scheduling them with the police department and arranging for the dog. … Generally, we'd like to do one per nine week period.”

In the Ringgold School District, in-house police handle most matters involving illegal drugs.

“We don't use dogs,” Superintendent Dr. Karen Polkabla said.

“The school police perform their job functions well. If they have reason to believe that a student is in possession of something, they will do a search of that student themselves.

“They do have the ability that if they need to call for a dog, they can.”

Charleroi Area Acting Superintendent Reid Smith acknowledged that district police have the same powers as those in municipal departments and handle situations as they arise.

Demko said area residents should be aware that drug problems exist in every school district.

“There are some in wealthier communities that definitely have their blinders on,” Demko said. “They say, ‘it's not my son' or ‘it's not my daughter.'” Coming from a wealthier area, I can assure you, it's just as bad here in Rostraver Township.”

Demko said that while searches at BVA are random, the drug task force also acts on tips received through its website, www.bvataskforce.com.

“We've had parents and students give us tips,” Demko said.

“If we see an increase in activity or chatter, or a principal may call us, we'll take the tip.

“They just don't know when we'll be coming. There's times when we go in one day and show up the very next day.”

Thursday's search at Belle Vernon Area carried visual impact.

The search involved six K-9 officers including dogs from Clairton, Cecil Township, Ligonier Township, Ligonier Borough, and Lewistown, Pa.

“The morning we did the search, Clairton's K-9 had just participated in a bust that recovered 50 bricks of heroin and $8,500 cash,” said Demko, explaining the scope of illicit drug activity.

“He left there and came here. Clairton is right down the highway. It's everywhere, and it's here in our community.”

Demko said the task force routinely hits many schools each year.

“All the schools are doing this now. We're no worse in Rostraver or Belle Vernon Area than anyone else. Every school has the same problem,” he said.

Demko noted that an upcoming drug summit at Belle Vernon Area High School and Reality Tour program approved by the school board will be instrumental in educating students and parents.

“Teaching on how to recognize certain habits and behaviors is extremely important,” Demko said. “Educating the students on the dangers is just as important, but the parents and faculty need to be able to identify the signs.”

Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jsellew@tribweb.com or 724-684-2667.

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