Portage High drug sweep comes up empty
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent April 11, 2013 11:43AM
Porter County Sheriff's Officer Joe Dobson and his K-9 partner Argo search student backpacks while students wait in a classroom during a police drug search at Portage High School in Portage, Ind. Thursday April 11, 2013. Portage police were joined by K-9 units from surrounding departments to conduct the search. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 13, 2013 6:26AM
PORTAGE — “Whew,” Portage High School Principal Caren Swickard said Thursday morning, as Argo, a drug dog with the Porter County Sheriff’s Department, sniffed over a group of ninth-graders’ backpacks left in the hallway for inspection.
“That was good,” Swickard said with obvious relief when Argo didn’t find any illegal drugs. “Nothing — that was what we wanted to see.”
A sweep at the high school by eight police dogs from throughout Porter County didn’t yield any drugs but put students on notice that illegal substances won’t be tolerated in a school setting.
It also was the first such sweep in a few years, since the Portage Police Department is in the process of rebuilding its canine unit. The department recently received funding for three dogs and has officers in training, Police Chief Troy Williams said.
Eight dogs from the Valparaiso, Porter, Chesterton and Porter County police departments took part in the search, which started around 8:40 a.m. and lasted about half an hour. The school of 2,700 students was on lockdown during the search.
“We want to send the message that drugs will not be tolerated in our schools,” Williams, a former school resource officer at the high school, said before the search, adding studies show kids typically begin experimenting with marijuana in sixth grade.
“If you bring drugs to school, we will find you and hold you accountable. We can’t afford not to.”
When the police department had an active canine unit, Swickard said, police frequently conducted sweeps.
“They had an open invitation to do a hallway,” she said, adding that may again be the case once the canine unit is up and running. “We’re OK with that,” she said. She wants students and parents alike to see the school as a drug-free place.
Thursday’s search was limited to lockers, as well as five randomly selected classrooms, where students were instructed to place their backpacks in the hallway. The students themselves were not searched, and police did not take the dogs through the parking lot.
School administrators invited the police and canine units to the high school to be proactive, Swickard said before the search.
“We want kids to know we are serious about keeping drugs out of our school,” she said.
Officers used a “plant” placed in the occasional locker to keep the dogs’ interest levels up — police said if the canines don’t find anything, they lose interest — but for the most part, that was all the dogs found.
The dogs hit on a handful of lockers but police found nothing illegal in them, including two lockers side by side on the high school’s third floor. Portage Police Sgt. Mark Monks and Tim Kuntsek, the high school’s student services director, went through the books and other belongings in the lockers to no avail before tagging them with sticky notes so other officers would know they’d been searched.
“He just showed some interest in it, so we checked to cover everything,” Monks said of the dog that stopped at the lockers.
Other schools in the region use drug sweeps as well. At Lake Central High School, Principal Robin Tobias said canine searches have been going on for at least 16 years.
Now, they’re done once a semester; whether the school and the parking lot are both searched depends on a number of factors, including the availability of the dogs and their handlers.
“We count on our kids to make the right decisions, and if they don’t, we’ll act accordingly,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have cooperative kids and hopefully, many of them are making very good decisions.”
Back in Portage, Williams said he was happy the dogs didn’t find anything at the school, but students should be on the lookout all the same.
“We still want to be cautious that drugs will never be found here,” he said.