By Dylan Silver
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — After a demonstration by Duke, the South Lake Tahoe Police Department’s drug-sniffing canine, Lake Tahoe school board members voted recently to allow random drug searches at South Lake Tahoe’s high school and middle school.
“Our focus is on prevention,” said high school Principal Ivone Larson. “We want to make sure we don’t have anything on campus.”
An officer along with a specially trained K-9 unit will scan the property at the schools, including lockers and cars, but the dog will avoid sniffing students.
“Any area of the school is subject to search,” said police Chief Brian Uhler. “(K-9 units) can literally scan an entire room in seconds and find drugs in it.”
The searches are not intended to be a surprise to the students, Uhler said. Before the searches begin, parents will be notified of the school district’s decision to allow the searches.
“If the kids know there will be a dog on campus and they stash their drugs in a snow bank, that’s better as far as I’m concerned,” Uhler said. “The last thing I want is for the community to think we’re out there trying to catch a bunch of kids with dope.”
Since the beginning of the year there have been 21 cases involving illegal drugs at the middle school and 14 at the high school. Uhler didn’t know whether these statistics were high compared to other schools, but he thought they were high for South Lake Tahoe. Uhler was alarmed at an incident where a 14-year-old was caught selling drugs to an 11-year-old, he said.
The searches are a part of the school district’s ongoing preventive drugs and alcohol program. Other measures include breathalyzers at school-sponsored events, an on-site school resource officer and The Drug Store Project, a drug-themed reality-based demonstration aimed at teaching students smart choices regarding drugs.
“We want to send a strong message,” said Superintendent James Tarwater. “We don’t want drugs on our campus — period.”
The school board, district staff and the Police Department stressed that the searches will not disrupt school activities and are intended to make the schools a better place for learning.
“This is a really non-intrusive, non-invasive way to see what’s going on,” Larson said.
Students who are found to be responsible for drugs on campus will be arrested, but not necessarily expelled, Tarwater said. First-time offenders will be offered counseling and discipline will be decided on a case-by-case basis, he added.
The frequency of the searches will depend on what is initially found and the availability of the officers.
“Depending on what we find, we’ll decide how rigorously to continue,” Tarwater said.
The idea for the searches came from talks over the past several years about how the schools could be more efficient in preventing drugs and alcohol and the peer pressure that accompanies them on campus, Larson said. The school board did not spearhead the idea, said board President Wendy David, but they did agree that the searches would help the schools remain places of learning.
“I want the school to feel like a welcoming and safe place,” she said.