Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Drug-sniffing dogs may visit Hillsborough County's high schools

TAMPA — Lockers won't be safe hiding places. Neither will backpacks and cars.

The sheriff's drug-sniffing dogs are trained to find hidden marijuana. And for the first time, the agency plans next year to conduct random drug checks at Hillsborough County high schools.

Authorities will launch an education campaign in August to warn teens that the dogs are coming.

Then deputies will randomly bring them to the county's high schools. Students will not know which school a dog is going to visit on a particular day, so there won't be any way to prepare, sheriff's Capt. Chad Chronister said.

Chronister is leading the agency's charge and working with the Hillsborough County school district, which is interested. Each agency's lawyers are reviewing the plan before it gets a green light.

Chronister says the Sheriff's Office knows that public support for marijuana legalization is increasing.

"But not for children," he said. "And not in schools."

The enforcement could lead to more arrests, but that's not the goal. In fact, Chronister hopes the education campaign will convince teens to stay away from drugs — or at least keep them off school grounds.

The agency will consider their effort a success if arrests decrease, he said.

The Sheriff's Office averages about 30 felony marijuana arrests a year in middle and high schools. Misdemeanor marijuana arrests (less than 20 grams) have hovered around 220 in recent years.

Authorities usually confiscate about 750 grams of marijuana each year — about 1.7 pounds.

In Pinellas, the Sheriff's Office sometimes brings a drug-sniffing dog to campus if they are investigating a specific tip or dealing with increased drug use in the school's vicinity, said district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf.

They don't do random, routine checks, like Hillsborough is planning.

In Pasco, deputies send their dogs to each high school and middle school once a year.

To warn students about the upcoming enforcement, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has produced a video that will be shown at each high school.

In the video, marijuana is hidden in a high school locker. Then a dog and its handler arrive and start passing by the lockers, along with a school resource deputy and school administrator — just like they will do next year.

The dog quickly finds the pot.

Hillsborough's drug-sniffing dogs are trained to "signal" when they smell drugs. That means the dog either barks or sits down.

That signal is enough reason for deputies and school officials to open the student's locker. Chronister says he expects deputies will likely come across weapons in the course of their searches, as drugs often move with guns.

"Our hope," he said, "is that we might even prevent something from happening with these guns."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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