Students and staff at Northport High School soon will have new four-legged visitors canvassing their hallways.
The district's board of education has approved the use of Suffolk County Police Department drug-sniffing dogs for sweeps at the high school. Proponents say this is another tool the district will use to dissuade students from drug and alcohol use as the number of drug overdoses on Long Island rises. Critics argue that this method will not discourage drug use and they worry about potential lawsuits.
"We like to be very proactive . . . I want to do everything I possibly can do to protect every child in this district," Superintendent Marylou McDermott said.
The sweeps would be requested by the district and then scheduled with police. The dogs would probe only the lockers of the 2,100 high school students.
High school Principal Irene McLaughlin said the rising number of overdose deaths was one of the catalysts for the new program and the district's existing efforts to curtail drug and alcohol use.
In Suffolk, heroin and other opiate-related deaths nearly doubled from 118 to 217 from 2010 to 2011. The number of those deaths among people 29 and younger showed a similar spike, from 33 to 60 in the same period. The figures were reported by the county's medical examiner.
Attorney David Badanes was the only Northport board member to vote against the drug-sniffing dogs last month.
"The proposed use of drug-sniffing dogs is the wrong idea, is legally suspect and will not reduce the use of illegal drugs in our school district," Badanes wrote in a letter to the board.
He said the use of the dogs "will falsely assure parents that by keeping drugs out of students' lockers that the school district has somehow made a dent in students' drug use." He also said the new initiative, which costs the district nothing, "does nothing to remedy the use of prescription pills or alcohol."
Suffolk County Police Inspector Stuart Cameron said the dogs can detect only illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana. He said the department has done 20 sweeps in 11 schools in nine districts since November 2010 and they have resulted in about three arrests, all related to marijuana.
Rob Ingraham, who has a child in the high school, also opposes the drug-sniffing dogs. Ingraham is a member of the district's Drug and Alcohol Task Force, created about six years ago when two Northport alums overdosed and died.
Ingraham said he is opposed to "suspicionless searches" and he doesn't like the "implication of making every student a suspect."
"I worry about the impact on our Northport sense of community," he said.
About the dog searches:
-Schools initiate a sweep by contacting the Suffolk County Police Department to schedule a date.
-Police bring in dogs (the number varies) and sweep an area of the school selected by school officials.
-If the dogs make an "indication" toward a locker or group of lockers, school officials are notified by police.
-School officials -- not police -- then can open the locker and do a search.
-If illegal materials are found and there is probable cause to believe they belong to a certain person, that person will be arrested.
Source: Suffolk County Police Lt. Brian Coltellino, commanding officer of canine unit