BATH, Maine — Morse High School students were locked down in their classrooms Monday morning as five police canine units searched the school for drugs, but officials came up empty.
The “teaching lockdown” followed two practice drills in February, Morse Principal Peter Kahl said Tuesday.
This week, classes continued as dogs swept the school’s library, theater, gym areas and hallways, sniffing the doors of lockers but getting no “hits,” Bath Police Lt. Stan Cielinski said Monday.
Kahl said he modeled Monday’s drill on a search he observed at Brunswick High School.
Five minutes after the students were locked down — at about 9: 20 a.m. — Kahl checked the hallways and announced to teachers that they could continue to teach, but that no one should leave the classrooms.
“We’ve always wanted to have drug dogs come into the building because I think it sends a message that school is a place for learning and not a place to bring illegal substances,” Kahl said. “I’m not naïve enough to think that nothing like that happens at Morse High School, but I want to make students feel like this remains a safe spot.”
Random searches of the school by drug-sniffing dogs are new this year, following a December vote by the Regional School Unit 1 board of directors.
“The point here is not to catch people,” Superintendent Patrick Manuel told the board at the time. “The point is to send a message. This is another deterrent.”
On Tuesday, Manuel said he engaged high school administrators from the day he arrived in the district last summer about conducting the searches “and they were on the same page.”
Former superintendent William Shuttleworth opposed the practice due to what Manuel said Tuesday were “philosophical differences.”
But Manuel said he’s found drug searches and “teaching lockdowns” to be effective in keeping schools safe.
And with Brunswick, Mt. Ararat, Wiscasset and Boothbay Region high schools already conducting similar drug searches, Morse is the only area high school that did not allow the procedure, he said.
Manuel and Kahl also said they continue to work with local law enforcement officials to find funding — possibly in the form of grants — to bring a school resource office back to work with Morse’s 628 students.
Manuel and high school administration support the concept, he said, but simply don’t have the money this year — particularly with such a tight budget about to be reconciled.
“It’s all about money,” he said. “I have had conversations with [Sagadahoc County Sheriff] Joel Merry and [Bath Police Chief] Mike Field to see if there is any grant money out there. At this point, we’re really probably relying on finding some outside money to support it for maybe three years, and then we’ll figure out how to sustain it.”
Recent drug searches and the effort to fund an SRO are not indicative of any upsurge in drug use at Morse, Manuel said, noting instead that recent surveys in which students self-report their alcohol and drug use show Morse students are “no different than, I think, any community would be.”
But he said school officials must do what they can to ensure the school is “a safe place.”
Monday’s drug search — which lasted about 20 minutes, Kahl said — involved canine units from Bath, Lisbon, Sagadahoc and Kennebec county sheriff’s offices and the Maine State Police.
Another is planned before the end of the year, and dogs will enter the classrooms at that time.
Under that scenario, students will exit the classrooms and line up against the hallway wall, Kahl said. Then dogs will enter the classrooms and sniff backpacks.
“Dogs do not actually sniff the students,” he said. “It’s just too much of a liability and risk.”
Manuel praised high school administration and the Bath Police Department for “a very efficient and well-organized first-time through.”
“We can’t control everything 24-7, but we can try to control what goes on at our schools,” he said.
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