Hamilton steps up school searches 

A new drug sniffing dog

Hamilton this week became the fifth school district in Ravalli County to contract with a contraband-sniffing dog service.

The school board and administration were treated on Tuesday to a performance by Dudley, a young, alert Labrador retriever trained to sniff out drugs, ammunition, alcohol, medications and the residual odors that might be found in school lockers, students’ cars and backpacks.

Dudley was handled by Tanya Godfrey, a trainer with Interquest Detection Canines (IDC), of Spirit Lake, Idaho. IDC operates a Montana franchise, and has placed contraband-sniffing dogs in 86 schools in Montana and Wyoming.

Drug and alcohol use are on the increase at Hamilton High, according to principal Kevin Conwell. “It is a problem,” he told the school board. “We have had some students found with paraphernalia and marijuana and we decided it was time to take a hard look at what we’re doing.“

Last September Hamilton Police Officer Chris Hoffman opened an office on campus and now works full-time as a roving cop on the Hamilton School District’s five K-12 schoolgrounds. Hoffman will now be joined by canine partner Dudley, though the two won’t work together.

Dudley not only sniffs out illegal substances, but he’s been trained to distinguish between the alcohol contained in beer and that found in hair spray or nail polish. When he hits on a suspicious substance, says Godfrey, he sits and looks at her. That’s the sign that a high-schooler has pot or beer or ammo in his locker, desk, backpack or car. A school administrator will then search for the offending item.

The legality of the searches—and any seizures that might follow—have been upheld by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, one involving IDC in 1982. That assurance didn’t sit well with Nick Hallett, the only school board trustee who appeared disturbed by the decision to use drug dogs. He said the message to students is that the potential presence of drugs is worth giving up the fundamental right to remain free from illegal search and seizure. “Our school now is making a compromise that to me seems significant,” he said.

His colleague on the board, Nan Christenson, said the kids she talked to seemed more concerned about their drug-using peers than they are about their constitutional rights. But she agreed that the double standard might make a good topic for discussion in class. “It would be a neat conversation to have in civics class,” she said.

The students were informed of the new canine presence on campus at an assembly on Wednesday, where Dudley was put through his paces.

Dudley will cost $250 per visit. Conwell said students can expect three or four unannounced searches between now and June, but there will be more if school and police officials think they’re warranted.

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