Last Friday morning, Oct. 9, Wilton High School conducted its first search of the school using police K-9 officers to look for drugs. While school officials came away satisfied that the school is ‘safe,’ they did find that the school wasn’t entirely clean:  the dogs made positive scent ‘hits’ on several lockers and cars, although only a small amount of marijuana was actually located in one student’s car.

One other thing school officials also found was mixed reactions from the wider community [see mixed comments on GMW‘s Facebook posts], although publicly administrators and police officials said that they were very pleased with how the drug search went, and that they felt the community was supportive of the district’s new policy and actions.

In the days leading up to the search and following it in statements to the media, officials maintained that the goal was not to ‘catch’ anyone; rather they hoped to send a message that Wilton schools should be drug-free, and that they were acknowledging how teen drug use is a common problem. “The goal here is not to punish but to help,” said one.

Members of the Wilton press were granted a good deal of access to the search with some restrictions on where and when we could be present and take photographs. In addition, officials gave significant time before and after the search to brief the members of the media and answer questions.

The Scene and the Mood

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The search was scheduled to take place at 9:30 a.m. Friday morning. The community was informed ahead of time that it would occur while students were in class and that it was expected to be completed within the time of one class period.

High school administrators and Superintendent Kevin Smith were there, of course, and there was a palpable energy with additional people present:  in addition to the members of the press, there were two school board members, administrators from Middlebrook, and one police commissioner on hand to observe the search.

In addition, Police Chief Robert Crosby, Capt. John Lynch, and school resource officer Rich Ross were there from the Wilton Police Department. Wilton K-9 officer Steven Rangel with his dog, Enzo, were the lead K-9 team, and they were joined by teams from Norwalk, Darien, Monroe, Stratford and Newtown.

Reporters were asked to keep a distance from the K-9 units for two main reasons:  primarily, the dogs were “there to do a job” and might get distracted by additional unfamiliar people who they might view as suspicious; additionally, should any civilians get unnecessarily close to the police dogs, the dogs might not react in a friendly manner. Media was held back across Kristine Lilly Way as the K-9 unit cars pulled up to the front entrance of the school in a coordinated caravan. We were also only permitted to accompany Wilton’s K-9 team.

As the dogs arrived and the teams coordinated, several students pressed their noses against classroom windows to get a glimpse. Teams went in separately, each one escorted by an administrator or school official to a different section of the school. On their target lists were student hallway lockers, gym lockers, and all student and staff parking lots.

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The Search

Wilton media accompanied Ofc. Rangel and Enzo, and we were permitted to follow them into the school to a 2nd-floor corridor of student lockers. We were not restricted from any kind of photography and were allowed to capture what they did. We were asked to keep a respectful distance behind Enzo and to stay out of his line of movement.

Enzo was extremely focused on Rangel and very responsive to whatever commands his handling officer gave him. Swift and precise, he moved from sitting attentively, looking up at Rangel to await direction, to briskly trotting and sniffing along the line of lockers as soon as he heard the command, “Find the gift!”

The search of the hallway, approximately 70 ft. long, took less than a minute for Enzo to cover. Enzo and Rangel then went to continue doing their sweep, while reporters were escorted back outside to wait for the search be completed.

Rangel later explained that so many dogs from other jurisdictions were needed because Enzo would not have been able to cover the entire school in the time allotted on his own. Rangel attributed part of that to the exhaustion factor for the dogs:  “They’re like people, you can only run for so long before you have to stop. One dog couldn’t do an entire school.”

While the search was supposed to start at 9:30 a.m. and be completed before the bell signaling the change of class at 9:54 a.m., it took longer than expected and students were held from moving to their next class for approximately another 10 minutes.

The dogs used during this search were trained to search for illicit drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, opiates or methamphetamines.

“Dogs can be trained to find anything⎯drugs, bombs, cadavers, anything you want. We specifically only train ours to find narcotics. If we do train them on other things, if he’s smelling a bomb, I don’t want him thinking it’s drugs, because that puts us in danger and it puts everyone in danger. When they do a search like this, there’s nothing else they’re searching for,” Rangel explained.

Questions and Answers

Sitting around the conference table in Superintendent Smith’s office following the search, officials briefed the media and answered questions.

Smith started off right away, “The building was clear. The dogs did hit on some lockers, and the lockers that were searched were empty. We’re not sure if it was ‘residual’ but as far as I’m concerned we met our objective, which was trying to keep our school safe and this was an important step in that direction.”

According to what one of the K-9 officers told Smith, ‘residual’ meant that dogs would be able to get a hit on a scent “for a couple of weeks.”

Any locker that was ID’d as a ‘positive hit’ was confirmed by a second K-9 officer, to make sure there wasn’t a false positive from the first dog. Then the locker was opened by an administrator.

What did that mean for the students whose lockers were identified by the dogs?

“At this point there’s no reasonable suspicion. We want to think about what we saw and what we heard, and we’ll have to plan out if we want to have a conversation, and what does it mean. I want to be very cautious. I don’t want to communicate to a kid that his or her locker was searched, and I would never want a kid to walk away after a conversation with a school person, that now he or she is under suspicion,” Smith said.

At this first briefing immediately after the search, administrators indicated that only one locker was found and searched. Later in the day, however, a letter to parents from WHS principal Bob O’Donnell indicated that several more locations were hit on by dogs and searched.

final option“The canines identified nine student lockers, two physical education lockers, and four cars as potential areas containing drugs. The follow up searches of these areas by school administrators did not reveal any drugs in the school building. There was one confirmed case of drugs in a student car. The search lasted from 9:18 until 10:04 [a.m.]. … When a canine identified an area of suspicion, we had a second canine confirm the scent. Upon confirmation by the second canine, two administrators searched the contents of the area. In each instance in which a search was conducted, we informed the student and called home to inform the parents of the search.”

The findings were confirmed in an afternoon update emailed to press by Wilton Police Capt. Lynch:  “Once the operator was located the vehicle was searched and a very small amount of suspected marijuana was located inside the vehicle. The student is a juvenile and the case remains under investigation.”

Smith said that the search was limited to student locker areas, and all parking lots. When GOOD Morning Wilton asked whether teacher lounges or offices were searched, the superintendent said that no “common areas” were included. “But that’s not to say that they won’t be in the future.”

We also asked what steps might be taken with students if drugs were found in their possession on school property.

“We’d really have to do some talking with the staff at the high school and see, what do we know about the student? What do we know about the family? If we find anything or have beyond a reasonable suspicion, we’re certainly going to reach out to the family. The goal here is not to punish but to help. Drugs are a common problem across many communities so we have to be very clear about what our purpose is,” Smith answered.

Community Response, Before and After

Response from the community before Friday’s K-9 sweep seemed to show that parents were unclear about why the search was being publicized so openly. Board of Education chair Bruce Likly addressed it in a column, again emphasizing that the goal was to make the school drug free.

He articulated that again on Friday talking to the media.

“What we’re trying to do is open up a dialog with the community and with the students, that drugs are not acceptable in our schools and that we will build a school district that is one of the safest ones in the country. That people can feel comfortable when they bring their kids to school that we’re doing everything we can to make them safe,” he said.

That was echoed by Police Commissioner Chris Weldon, who acknowledged the element of public relations display to reinforce the message about wanting a drug-free school.

“We want them to understand what assets we have. We’re trying to be much more open and let the kids know we want to be involved, we gave them advance notice so they knew what was going on. We’re not trying to play tricks. This is to help and hopefully save kids in the long run.”

The police chief was even more blunt:  “We don’t want to arrest a child if he had a little bit of marijuana in his locker. We’re here to assist the school. I went to school here [at WHS]. I taught here as a D.A.R.E. officer and youth officer. I have a great respect for this school system and we have a great relationship. We’re not all about making that arrest; we want to help that child rather than put them through the system.”

Crosby did add that if it were a staff member who was caught, “we’d deal with that as well.” Smith was more forceful referring to the possibility of any staff infractions:  “There are laws and there are codes of professional practice.” The officials reiterated that all parking lots were searched⎯staff and employee, as well as student.

Likly said the response he’d heard from families about the search was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“We’re trying to open up a dialog not only with the kids, but between the kids and their parents. It’s a challenge, and we think this is a good first step to get the conversation going.”

He did acknowledge that some of the students even had a little fun with the search.

“They were in a healthy place about it. We did find at least one frozen hamburger. One kid put a sign on his car, ‘No Drugs here.’ That to me is a healthy dialog. I think the community is responding the way we hoped they would.”

Smith reiterated his position about the effort not being an adversarial one.

“This is not about that we are suspicious or mistrust our children. This is really about safety and assistance,” he said.

He also noted that school administrators had taken steps to reassure any students who might have been anxious ahead of time about the dogs being in the school. “Bob [O’Donnell] had communicated with all staff that we may have kids that have fears or phobias about dogs. Staff was instructed to address those concerns as they came up. They’re by and large a very caring staff, who wouldn’t leave a kid in distress.”

The issue was also addressed ahead of time with students in advisory, which Likly said was “a smaller group and a more personal opportunity for kids and adults to talk about it.”

Mixed Bag of Reaction

Not everyone was as positive as officials hoped, however. Comments on GOOD Morning Wilton‘s Facebook page seemed to indicate that some residents thought the show of police force was excessive or misdirected.

UPDATE on the K-9 Drug Search at Wilton High School, from police:  “During the K9 search earlier this morning at the…

Posted by GOOD Morning Wilton on Friday, October 9, 2015

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Moving Forward, Next Steps

Officials said that following the search, the school administrators would debrief, and take a look at what their first experience with this kind of search was for everyone involved.

As for the school, Smith said, “I’m sure we’ll have a list of questions. Where we found lockers, we’ll want to revisit⎯what was that about, what are the circumstances, what are the next steps. And make contact with families that we need to.”

In addition, he said that principal O’Donnell would follow-up by the end of the day, as well as speak to students via the PA system.

Crosby agreed. “This is the first time, so there is a learning curve. We realize the time wasn’t [optimal]–either we start exactly on time or we have it run longer. For the first time we weren’t sure what to expect; it’s a big school.”

Likly said he was particularly happy with the cooperation he saw all around. “With the police department, with all of the surrounding towns, and I’m proud of the professionalism and teamwork of our administration. And I appreciate the support the community has given us and that the students have given us.”

But one point he wanted to drive home:  “We’ll be doing more of these. And they will not be announced.”

3 replies on “WHS Conducts K-9 Drug Search, Not Everything is Clean [PHOTOS/VIDEO]”

  1. Like it or not, there is a drug use epidemic in the US among teen-agers and young adults. I have attended several funerals in the past few months of young men in the early twenties. That is a very unpleasant experience. Anything the schools can do to try and reverse this trend is very worthwhile and I applaud it. I sincerely hope the Wilton Schools continue with this program.

  2. This part of the interview with the superintendent puzzles me:

    We also asked what steps might be taken with students if drugs were found in their possession on school property.

    “We’d really have to do some talking with the staff at the high school and see, what do we know about the student? What do we know about the family?

    If a student breaks the law I certainly hope that the disciplinary process is applied equally in each case. I’m not saying Wilton does this but I do know that some schools will brush aside cases involving star athletes, students on the way to Ivy League schools or popular/powerful parents in the community.

  3. It is unfortunate that this is necessary, but if it helps some kid get on the right track it is worth it. After 43 years in Wilton we have seen to many children with a wonderful background end up gone.

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