Andover High is making a serious effort to crack down on drug use among students.
A canine search of the school was held on Thursday, Oct. 12. A recent letter sent to parents by Principal Phil Conrad had informed them that the school may utilize random dog searches to discourage students from bringing or using drugs on school property.
"We continue to work in partnership with the Andover Police Department, the Essex County District Attorney’s Office and other sources of local data which indicate that both the incidence of use and the severity of illegal drugs such as heroin have increased dramatically in Andover and surrounding communities," Conrad wrote in an email to parents.
The search lasted about half an hour, from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., according to Lt. Edward Guy, spokesman for the Andover Police Department.
"Nothing was found," Conrad said. "We are very happy about that."
"I appreciate the cooperation of the Andover Police Department," Conrad added. "And all the students and faculty. Everybody was great. It went very quickly and smoothly and I appreciate everyone's cooperation."
Student Government Liaison and Andover High senior Noah Colby described the search to the School Committee at its Oct. 12 meeting.
“Mr. Conrad came over intercom and announced that they were doing a shelter in place and that the dogs are coming in," Colby said. "They also had the dogs come through my classroom. They had us leave our backpacks in the classroom and move into the next classroom. As far as I can tell it went pretty smoothly. I didn’t hear any barking.”
Guy agreed that the search went well.
"Several departments assisted the Andover Police with canine resources from the region," Guy said in an email. "This was the first search we have conducted in several years. It was very organized and conducted in an expedient manner. We believe it went extremely well with only a short interruption of class time. The hope for this search is that it is a future deterrent for bringing any type of illegal drugs into the school."
Students were sheltered in their classrooms away from the dogs during the search. Lockers, backpacks, the parking lot, and all indoor and outdoor spaces were searched.
The dogs will sit if they "hit" or "positively identify" the presence of an illegal substance. Anything a canine "positively identifies" will be searched during a canine sweep. Students with prohibited substances will be addressed through the school's handbook. Even if nothing is found, a student's parents will be contacted if their belongings attract the attention of one of the canines.
The canine search comes in the midst of the opioid crisis sweeping the country. In 2016 there were three deaths in Andover due to opiod overdoses. In 2015 there were five.
"Conducting K9 sweeps in the high school allows the police and school department to show we are serious about dealing with this issue," Guy said. "We have been working closely with the school department on educational programs on the subject of drug abuse."
Canine searches at Andover High have been in the works for almost a year now. Future drug sweeps were discussed at the Dec. 8, 2016 School Committee meeting. Minutes from the meeting read: "The abuse of opiates is a serious global problem and a concern of law enforcement and local communities. On a number of occasions they have talked about running a search using canines from the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). Chief Keefe spoke about the joint task to combat opiate abuse using education and enforcement."
Andover High has recently seen a spike in students bringing electronic cigarettes and vapes to school. Often nicotine and THC are smoked through these devices.
"The goal of a search is not to 'catch people' or 'scare students' but rather to serve as a deterrent, reinforce our educational efforts with regard to illicit drugs, and send a clear message that illegal drugs are not tolerated in our school," Conrad added.
The police department isn't just seeking to enforce drug laws, but discourage drug use through education as well.
"The police department and schools are also looking to expand educational programs to include children in grades 6-8," Guy said. "We feel when you educate those who are younger, and continually reinforce the negatives of drug use, we may be able to instill an attitude in school children that makes them never want to use or even experiment with drugs and they have a better understanding of how it can ruin your life."
Follow Kelsey Bode on Twitter @Kelsey_Bode.