Steamboat Springs Czar's bark commands attention. His keen sense of smell has failed him only once as a state-certified, drug-sniffing dog, and it has secured him a job uncovering narcotics for the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.
On March 7, Czar, a chocolate Labrador retriever, and his handler, Moffat County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Courtland Folks, made a special trip across county lines to roam Hayden High School's hallways and parking lots. The message they sent was clear - drug use and possession will not be tolerated at the school.
It was Czar's first trip to a Routt County school, and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that it was the Hayden School District that invited him and Folks.
Hayden has arguably the most proactive drug policies of any Routt County school district. But district officials in Hayden, Steamboat Springs and South Routt agreed there aren't right policies or wrong policies. Rather, they said, each district has adopted a drug policy that is philosophically in line with the beliefs of the district and its community.
Hayden High School conducts random drug searches, including visits from drug-sniffing dogs. It also reserves the right to randomly drug test its students.
Hayden High School Principal Troy Zabel said the March 7 visit from Czar was in line with the school's random drug testing policy, and that it served as a good educational experience.
"My main reason for bringing the dog in was to use him as a tool for a learning experience," he said. "We wanted the kids to know that while we're not going after anyone, we are looking."
Steamboat Springs High School is the only school in the county to maintain a "zero tolerance" policy in regards to drugs, officials said.
Superintendent Donna Howell said students are not to bring any tobacco, alcohol or illegal drug onto school grounds, and they face stiff punishment if they violate that policy.
Drug-sniffing dogs have never entered the high school, she said.
"As a district we have not discussed random drug searches such as a dog," she said. "We would not put anything like in place without community input."
In 2003, when Hayden's current drug policy was enacted, parents expressed concern that students' civil liberties were being compromised and that the policy created an "us versus them" feeling by requiring any student who leaves campus to submit to random drug testing.
Zabel, who was not the principal at the time the policy was instituted, said the policy has served the school well.
"It was a philosophical decision based on the high rate of students coming to school under the influence," he said. "We feel like this policy does a good job. The biggest thing is that we're not out to get anyone or trying to catch and string anyone up. We're trying to be proactive by letting our students know we support them but that certain behavior is not tolerated."
Steamboat Springs High School Assistant Principal Kevin Taulman said he and Principal Mike Knezevich came from school districts that used random drug testing, and that while they have discussed whether to implement random drug testing, the school would not implement anything without strong support from the community.
"I think using drug dogs is just a tool, and I hope any administrator would tell you that it's purely a preventative measure," Taulman said. "There's no way I'd ever move forward with something like that without tremendous support from the (Steamboat Springs School Board) and the community."
If the discussion ever did surface, parents and community members likely would come out against such a policy citing invasion of privacy and civil liberty issues, he said.
Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall, who campaigned on a platform of protecting civil liberties and constitutional rights, agreed.
"Without having reason or probable cause, I probably wouldn't bring a dog in to indiscriminately sniff lockers in Routt County schools or any other public institution," he said. "That's not what the Routt County Sheriff's Office is about. As I've said before, just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right."
Wall said he has not yet met with area school administrators in the 2 1/2 months since he became sheriff. He said he's eager to discuss his ideas for drug enforcement and educational opportunities in schools.
"I think in-depth drug education is part of the solution," he said. "My hope is that administrators and parents will bring their concerns to me and allow my office to investigate those concerns without using a blanket technique like drug-sniffing dogs."
Education = enforcement
School officials, medical professionals and law enforcement officers alike agree that drug education is key to teaching children and teenagers about the dangers and risks of using drugs and alcohol.
Garrett Wiggins, task force commander for the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotic Enforcement Team, said the days of D.A.R.E. - Drug Abuse Resistance Education - are over, and that schools and law enforcement agencies are taking more aggressive approaches to drug education.
"We know for a fact we do have drugs in most of our high schools and that our students do experience drug-related problems," he said. "It's something we should all be concerned about."
Wiggins said schools bolstering strong educational programs and making school resource officers available to students help deter some students from using drugs.
Dr. Dan Smilkstein, who helped develop the SteamboatCares survey at Steamboat Springs High School, said he always is amazed at how nonchalant students are about their drug use. The SteamboatCares survey asks students to be candid about their social behavior. The surveys are filled out anonymously.
"The biggest surprise to me is how matter-of-fact (the students) are about their behavior," he said. "It is absolutely acceptable to them. It's so commonplace."
Smilkstein said while drugs are a huge issue in schools, alcohol always will be the No. 1 substance abused by teens.
"There's a national trend that kids are using all the drugs that have always been around, but at a much younger age," he said.
While school officials can implement policy and enforce punishment for using or possessing drugs, most teens use drugs during the day away from campus and then return to school, he said.
"That's what prompted our policy," Zabel said. "We were having some serious issues with students leaving our campus and coming back under the influence," he said.
Czar's visit to Hayden High School may have been his first, but it won't be his last, Zabel added.
"We will definitely do follow up," he said. "I was very satisfied. I think it opened up a good experience for us to talk to our kids and get the word out."
- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org