OCEANSIDE — Oceanside High School Assistant Principal Saul Watson enters the classroom unannounced, and heads to the front of the room.
“Let me have your attention, please. Put down everything you have in your hands. Leave your things here. Stand up, push your chairs in, and line up outside in the hallway please.”
It’s a Friday, the day of the big game against football rival Mission Hills, and the Oceanside High School students are decked out in school pride attire. One student dons his Pirates football jersey, another her cheerleading uniform. Leaving their lesson behind, the students and teacher file outside of the room and wait in the hallway.
A yellow lab scampers inside and goes to work. Eagerly sniffing and snorting, “Cadi,” short for Cadillac, dodges desks to inspect each bag in the classroom. If it’s there, she’s going to find it.
Guided on a leash by her handler, she scurries methodically down one row of desks and up the next.
With a quick sniff, she knows it’s not in the binder on the table. Nothing in the pink purse under the desk either. Not a whiff on the black hoodie on the back of the chair.
But then her nostrils flare and she catches something. She darts to a red backpack and buries her snout in it. For the first time since she has entered the room, Cadi stops sniffing and sits down.
As an Interquest Detection Canine, Cadi has been trained to locate contraband. Sitting down next to an item of student property is her signal to her handler Tonya Anderson, that she has detected even the smallest trace of drugs, alcohol, and/or gunpowder.
A search of the student’s property later reveals an electronic cigarette and a business card for a marijuana delivery company.
Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD) has hired Interquest Detection Canines of San Diego to search each of its middle and high school campuses throughout the school year for more than 14 years.
OUSD School Intervention Manager Tim Ware said the canine detection campus searches serve as a “big deterrent” for students bringing contraband on campus.
He said that he and other administrators ensure that students know that the detection dogs can arrive on campus to conduct a search at any time during the school year.
“It’s not about catching kids. It’s about showing them you don’t want to do this,” said Ware. “But there are always some people who think they can get around the law.”
For the 2013-14 school year, OUSD is paying Interquest $3,500 to conduct 10 full days of campus searches throughout the district.
During each classroom search, which takes about five minutes, a trained detection canine sniffs through all student belongings after students have left the room. If the dog alerts his or her handler about detecting contraband, an administrator gathers the student’s belongings and escorts them to an administrator’s office. There, the student is asked for permission from the administrator to search his or her belongings. The students’ parents are notified and disciplinary action is taken based on the type of contraband found.
“It’s a safety issue because people do bring things that are dangerous on campus,” said Christine Schulz, the president of Interquest Detection Canines of San Diego.
Over the years, Interquests’ searches of OUSD campuses have discovered hundreds of students bringing drugs ranging from cocaine to marijuana, tobacco products, medication, and alcohol to school.
Searches of the students’ property can also reveal other types of contraband not detected by a canine. Dozens of weapons and gang-related materials have been found on OUSD campuses with these searches.
During the 2012-13 school year, 16 detection canine alerts were caused by some amount of illegal drugs, seven alerts by medication, 22 alerts by residual contraband like traces of beer or marijuana, and six alerts by tobacco, according to Interquest’s records.
Search of the students’ belongings uncovered one weapon and five gang-related items. Thirteen alerts that year were unknown because contraband could not be found and students did not reveal why the dog was alerted to their belongings. Fifty-eight alerts total occurred during the searches that year.
But whether or not the detection canine searches actually deter students from bringing contraband on campus is not easily measured.
Interquest records of OUSD searches from the 2006-07 school year to the 2012-13 school year reveal that the number of alerts fluctuates from year to year. The results span from a high of 104 total alerts in 2006-07 to a low of 44 alerts in 2010-11.
Both OUSD administrators and Interquest could not explain the rise and fall.
Schulz said she didn’t know why alerts vary from year to year in school districts.
Watson hypothesized that some years may result in more alerts if there is a new trend among contraband and new laws to crack down on that trend.
“I can’t think of a rhyme or reason except what’s at the forefront of the population’s mind at that time,” he said.
But OUSD staff said that they can see the difference the detection canine searches make on contraband at school even if the alert numbers don’t show it.
Richard Patterson, who heads Oceanside High School’s security, said that while security staff used to catch about 15 students per week smoking on campus, now that the canine searches have occurred regularly for years they catch fewer than one student per month smoking on campus.
“It’s a great improvement from what used to happen on campus,” he said.
Interquest performs detection canine searches of every school district in North County with middle and high schools except Carlsbad Unified School District and San Dieguito Union High School District.
The 25-year-old company is also contracted by numerous school districts throughout San Diego and other neighboring counties.
Watson said that one of the biggest reasons the district continues to conduct detection canine searches is because the searches spread the message to students that OUSD takes contraband seriously.
“It’s a visual for the students,” he said. “Everything is done for prevention.”