HOULTON, Maine — Houlton High School was put into a “secure” mode on March 2 as part of a random search for drugs by the Maine State Police and Houlton Police Department.
A Maine State Police K-9 unit conducted the planned search at the high school under the guidance of Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin.
“There were a number of hits by the dog on laptop cases, clothing, however, no substantial amount of drugs were identified, nor were any summons presented to any students,” Superintendent Mike Hammer said. “I believe that the school administration is working very hard to be proactive to the incidents of drug-related activity and appropriately responds to the incidents of drug involvement at the high school.”
Asselin said the police dog hit on several lockers and book bags, but no contraband was seized.
In a message posted at 11:09 a.m. March 2 on the high school’s Twitter page, Principal Marty Bouchard stated, “We conducted a random search for drugs this morning. There was no lockdown and students and staff were not in any danger at any time.”
Bouchard said the correct language was that the school was in a “Secure In Rooms” mode.
“This signals staff and students that there is no danger, however, they are to remain in their rooms conducting business as usual,” Bouchard said. “During ‘Lockdown’ situations, staff and students know there is danger. During lockdown situations, use of cellphones and computer technology can be a hindrance to the police and school district’s ability to ensure safety. We have a crisis plan and we are trained to carry it out in cases of emergency.”
Asselin said the drill had been in the planning stages for a couple of weeks.
“Originally we were going to have two to three K-9’s but because of state budget cutbacks, only one showed,” Asselin said. “Once Principal Bouchard contacted me, I reached out to Lt. Mark Brooks on the availability of a K-9. Principal Bouchard put the school in a nonemergency [search]. When doing drug searches in a school, you can’t have students hurrying to their lockers to remove items, going to the restrooms, or the parking lot, etc. It can be a safety issue, evidence could be removed/destroyed and it can be distracting for the K-9.”
The chief said he understood there were some concerns voiced, since parents were not able to be in contact with the school once the event started. Eight parents called the school when they learned of the event, while two others called the local police station.
“Two secretaries were available in the office to answer the phones once the [search] took place,” Asselin said. “There weren’t any parents that showed up at the school. Word managed to leak out that searches were taking place and a [search] was in effect from students accessing social networking sites. I saw a list of approximately 30 students who had accessed the Internet through the school after the nonemergency [search] took effect.”
“My secretaries were both in the office fielding phone calls,” Bouchard said. “The information they were informed to give out was, ‘there was no danger and we were conducting a random drug search.’”
The K-9 dog was fatigued after checking the lockers, so vehicles in the parking lot were not searched, the chief said.
“This was the first time a K-9 has been in Houlton High School for two years and I applaud Principal Bouchard for contacting me and inviting law enforcement in,” Asselin said.
The search lasted about two hours. Police used a consent-first approach when searching the school.
“The K-9 officer conducts a search of lockers, book bags and laptop bags,” Asselin said. “If the K-9 hits on a particular locker or bag, the principal will speak to the student who has ownership [if known] and first seek to obtain a consensual search. Regardless, the principal, and not the police, searches the lockers or bags. If contraband is found, the property is immediately turned over to the police for further investigation and possible prosecution. Police are also present in the event a search warrant needs to be obtained. Book and laptop bags are laid out in the hallway for the K-9 to check.”
Trooper Seth Edwards and his 9-year-old German shepherd, Boris, conducted the search. Trooper Edwards resides in Holden. To keep the date and time of the search as confidential as possible, officers and school staff were not notified of the search until that morning.
“All things considered, I thought everything went well,” Asselin said. “I was very pleased to see how well the teachers and staff followed the [search] procedure. The students also deserve a great deal of credit for the way they conducted themselves.”
A debriefing involving the chief, three HPD officers, Edwards, Bouchard and Assistant Principal Dawn Matthews was held after the search. Recommendations for future searches included having additional K-9 dogs available, shutting down the wireless Internet network inside the school and checking vehicles in the parking lot.
“HPD and the school administration have an excellent working relationship,” the chief said. “I would like to see a K-9 inside the school on an annual basis. It would certainly be more effective if K-9 searches were conducted more than once a year.”