TORRINGTON – Students at Torrington High School got a surprise break from their classes Friday morning.
School administrators went room by room, asking students to leave everything where it was and head to a waiting area. While the students were out, human and K9 officers from the Torrington Police Department, Cheyenne Police Department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol conducted a search of school facilities for drugs.
The effort, a collaborative plan between Goshen County School District No. 1 Superintendent Ryan Kramer and Torrington Police Chief Tim Hurd, resulted in the issuance of six search warrants and a 16-year-old male in custody Friday on charges of possession of marijuana, tobacco and drug paraphernalia.
Officials weren’t responding to a rash of drugs running rampant in the hallways at THS, Hurd and Kramer said. Rather, they want to prevent just such a situation from taking place.
“In my previous district, we took preventative measures to proactively bring in search dogs to look for narcotics that might be in the building,” Kramer said. “I talked to Chief Hurd and we discussed the possibility of doing that here in our district and what schools we could coordinate.”
Considerations of student safety and student rights were foremost in Kramer’s and Hurd’s thoughts when they were planning the search, Kramer said. Students and police – both two- and four-legged officers – were to have no to minimal contact, he said.
At no time were individual students singled out for detailed search or questioning, until and unless one of the K9 officers indicated to his or her human partner there was something in a backpack, cabinet, drawer or vehicle indicating probable cause that warranted a further search, Kramer and Hurd said. At that time, search warrants would be secured through proper channels.
Student’s rights “are really important,” Kramer said. “We are searching the school facility and vehicles that are parked on school property.”
Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats said schools generally are permitted to conduct this type of search, but that’s it’s a sensitive area as far as student rights are concerned.
“Courts have recognized less of a a fourth amendment right for students” in a school setting, Moats said. “But they haven’t ruled specifically on K9 searches.
“Critics of this raise the fact that dogs can have false alerts,” he said. “But the courts also said school could allow suspicion-less searches as the guardians of the children entrusted to their care.
Hurd and Kramer were the only ones who knew the specifics of the plan. Friday morning, emails were sent to administrators and parents and a message was sent via the district alert system, Kramer said, to prevent any concerns about student safety. A post on the district’s social media site said THS was placed in “soft lock-down.”
Kramer said, during a soft lock-down, students and teachers are to remain in the classroom while instruction continues. They are allowed to leave in specific situations - for an appointment or to use the restroom, for example, he said. But they must be escorted by a school administrator, Kramer explained.
Letting people know there was not an emergency situation at the school was of even greater importance following a school shooting the day before in California, Kramer said.
“We wanted to let parents know this wasn’t a safety issue,” he said. “Any time we see law enforcement at school buildings, our blood pressure increases. We worry about danger for our kids.
“We wanted to let them know it was a drill activity for the purpose of finding narcotics,” Kramer said. “There was no specific danger or specific threat for any students or staff.”
Both Hurd and Kramer have experience with similar programs at previous jobs – Kramer leading a school district in Iowa and Hurd as chief in Glenrock. In both instances, taking drug interdiction K9 officers into the schools had a positive effect. Juvenile crime in Glenrock, for example, dropped precipitously after Hurd instituted the routine, surprise search efforts there, he said.
“The last thing we want to do is make any arrests,” Hurd said. “What we really want to do is show the young adults who are students in these schools and the parents we’re interested in keeping them off drugs.
“We’re not here for sanction purposes,” he said. “We’re here to assist the schools, to make sure the parents know we’re not going to tolerate narcotics in their schools and they can send their students to a safe school where narcotics are not going to be – if we have anything to say about it – an issue or a problem for them.”
While the surprise searches work to address the bigger picture of drugs in schools, Kramer’s experience has led him to believe they are only a tool to address the issue of drug use by teens.
“I don’t think this is the primary tool I would use to alleviate that problem,” Kramer said. “It serves the purpose for prevention, getting that public mind out there. I don’t think, in isolation, it would ever have an effect on its own on student drug use or drug use in general.”
That’s why the new searches aren’t the only way local schools are working to curtail drugs on campuses, student drug use and other issues that might drop youth in the hands of the legal system, Kramer said. Another program – this one a collaboration between the district, local police and the Goshen County Attorney’s office – aims to take one step beyond into intervention.
Representatives of those three entities meet weekly, to decide how to deal with a variety of issues involving young people who may come afoul of the law both in and out of school, Kramer said. The results of those meetings – covering everything from drugs to drinking to truancy – are used to hopefully direct students back to the proper path, he said.
“It’s my hope we can either get students the help they need if we do find anything, take those active rolls,” Kramer said. “We take those preventative measures, whatever steps we can, to ensure that.
“As a school district, we’re looked upon as the education vehicle,” he said. “Law enforcement has their duties, what they’re required to do and what their expectations are. We kind of have to mesh those in a collaborative effort and it doesn’t always fit perfectly.”
But the legal system could be an only first step available in some instances to get those young people the help they need, Hurd said.
“Making an arrest is how we get an individual into the system so they can get that treatment, so they can get that intervention,” he said. “We’re trying to get these students or these people who have these drugs into the system so they can be court ordered to get treatment.”
And Hurd believes having that presence in the school, even if some could perceive it as confrontational, can go a long way to demystify law enforcement for the students. And it’s part of a larger message Hurd and Kramer both want to convey.
“They get to know you, they get to know who you are,” Hurd said. “We’re here for you. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.
“We’re here to make sure drugs don’t become an option for you, if we have anything to say about it. And we’re here to let your parents know you’re in a safe environment and to let everyone in the community know we’re working proactively to keep you and all the other students safe.”