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Drug-sniffing dog pays Kingsland High School a visit

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Kory, a dog trained to sniff out drugs and paraphernalia, takes a trip through the hallways of Kingsland High School.

SPRING VALLEY — Several days before homecoming weekend, Kingsland High School had a visit from JoEllen Peters and her drug-sniffing canine, Kory.

With her powerful sense of smell, the black lab roamed the hallways, sniffing through the vents of student lockers. The dog wandered the student parking lot, and she nosed around in empty classrooms and around bookbags, after students were asked to leave and wait in the hallway.

The dog remained leashed during the entire search.

No drugs, weapons or illegal substances were found, but the episode underscored the lengths to which some districts, including Kingsland, are going to in order to preserve their schools from drugs and weapons.

Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald described the district's decision to employ a drug-detection canine service as a preventive measure. Kingsland has no known history of drug problems in its schools, and school leaders want to keep it that way.

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"You talk to any administrator. They'll tell you that (drugs) can be found in any community, large or small," McDonald said. "It's about comfort level. We're creating a comfort level for learning."

Dogs like Kory are trained to find illicit drugs, alcohol and gunpowder-based items. Interquest Detection Canines, based in St. Peter, is under contract to make at least one visit a month to Kingsland High School. No advance warning is given, except for a call five minutes ahead of time that Peters and Kory are on their way. The district is spending $3,000 for the year-long contract.

The use of drug-sniffing dogs is a relatively new practice among schools in southeastern Minnesota, but their use is more common in other regions, particularly the central part of the state, where McDonald worked as a principal at Pequot Lakes. Interquest says it offers its services to more than 1,200 districts across the country.

The use of dogs, however, can give rise to concerns about student safety, of a loss of privacy and of a police-style presence in the schools that might be intimidating to students.

Knowing that parents would have questions, district officials held a series of forums to get the word out. Letters were sent to all parents, McDonald said. The school hosted a community meeting, so parents could see firsthand how Peters worked with her dog. An assembly was also held for students in grades seven through 12.

Kingsland School Board Chairman Doug Plaehn said he has not received a lot of feedback from the public about the use of a drug dog, but what little he's heard has been positive.

"They're thankful we're taking a proactive step," Plaehn said. "They feel more comfortable that their kids coming to school are safer."

Schools invite the dogs in, but it is the law that enables schools to use them as a tool for keeping schools free of drugs or firearms.

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Schools are not like homes, where police have to show "probable cause" to search a person's premises or vehicle. Schools operate under a lower standard of "reasonable cause." That allows school administrators to open and search student lockers if they feel they have good reason.

When Kory alerts to the presence of drugs or gunpowder by sitting, that standard is met, officials say.

McDonald said that if the dog alerts on a locker, the locker is searched by officials. If something illicit is found, the student is called out of class for a conversation "about what's been found, and we go from there," McDonald said. The police are also called. Even if nothing is found, the student is informed that the locker has been searched.

An alert on a car is a different situation, since the car doesn't belong to the school. If the student refuses to open the car and officials believe there is something "dangerous and unsafe" inside, police could seek a search warrant. Schools also have the authority to have the car towed from the parking lot.

Peters, whose Interquest franchise covers the southern part of the state, counts Zumbrota and New Richland among the half-dozen district clients in southeastern Minnesota that have enlisted her services. She also works for a couple of manufacturing companies.

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