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Dogs find no drugs during search

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Friday, Dec. 14, 2001

No drugs were found Thursday morning after three police dogs sniff-searched 700 lockers in one building at the Bethel Park High School campus.

Although two of the dogs alerted officials to the presence of drugs in 16 of the 10th-graders' lockers, only over-the-counter medications were found during subsequent searches by school administrators, district spokeswoman Shari Bruce said.

But if the dogs alerted, that meant drugs were in the locker, had been in the locker or the odor of drugs such as marijuana remained on clothing in the locker, authorities said.

"If the dog says something is there, something is there or was there," said Allegheny County Sheriff's Deputy James Lancia, who with his K-9 Marco conducted the search alongside teams from Bethel Park and Baldwin Borough. "For two dogs to hit on the same locker, something is going on, no question."

While no advance warning of the search was given, students should have been aware that a search was imminent.

The search came less than two days after the Bethel Park School Board on Tuesday adopted a policy to allow the use of drug-sniffing dogs in the district's schools. It was drafted in response to an increase in drug activity among a small number of high school students. Superintendent Victor Morrone reported the activity to the board in October, when the board authorized drafting the policy.

Bruce said Building 2 at the eight-building high school campus, housing homerooms and lockers for the entire 10th grade, was searched first because it was the level where suspicions of illegal drug activity were the highest. There are 467 students in the 10th-grade class and 1,800 at the high school. Each of the four grades has its own building for its homerooms and lockers.

Bruce said the first search was conducted so quickly after the adoption of the policy because school officials "want to send a message they are serious about this. It wasn't just talk."

She said the 10th-graders were kept locked down in their homerooms for 75 minutes while the lockers were searched. The homeroom period normally lasts from 7:25 to 7:45 a.m.

According to the policy, when a dog alerts to a locker, the lockers on either side are to be searched as well. Lancia said this is necessary because lockers are vented and because of the air flow between lockers.

However, Bruce said adjacent lockers were not searched because specific lockers were indicated by two of the three dogs.

"Apparently those dogs were really specific about the lockers they did hit on," she said.

Bruce said the parents of the students whose lockers were searched were called afterward and told what happened.

Although over-the-counter medications are considered contraband and the medications found were confiscated, Bruce said no students face disciplinary action. She said the students were reminded that medications may be brought to school but have to be given to the school nurse, who dispenses them.

Lancia said that while it's possible a police dog could detect narcotics in some medicines, he said it is far more likely that the dogs at the school yesterday morning were smelling the residue of illegal drugs. He said the dogs would not alert to tobacco or food, but, for instance, could detect the faint odor of marijuana on a jacket, even if its wearer had only stood near a person smoking it.

"Ninety percent of the time when we do these school things and we don't turn up with drugs, it's the residue or odor of marijuana," he said. "That odor sticks in clothing for some time. The dog's nose is extremely sensitive."

Bruce said it's possible drugs had been in the lockers but had been removed. "That falls under the 'we may never know' category," she said.

More searches are inevitable, Bruce said.

"They will happen," she said. "We will not release when or where."

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