Of all the times I’ve done school drop-off over the years, the hardest was Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.
That prior Friday had been the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Parents and schools across the country wrestled all weekend with how to approach Monday.
That morning, our sixth-grade daughter got on the bus as usual. Ayden, in kindergarten, also normally rode the bus, but I chose that day to drop him off at Pinehurst Elementary.
I will never forget the scene at the drop-off lane. Police cars lined the curb. Unsmiling officers stood on the sidewalks in positions of vigilance. Military-fatigued parents walked back and forth.
Ayden endured a too-long hug and kiss and walked blithely into school. Tears still roll down my cheeks when I think back on that day.
Newtown, CT; Marysville, WA; Roseburg, OR, Rancho Tehama Reserve, CA; Parkland, FL; Santa Fe, TX — our children have grown up in an age of mass school shootings and our struggle to respond appropriately.
The days of open schoolhouse doors were gone before these shootings, but in their wake security measures have taken on greater urgency. Heavier doors, controlled access that requires buzzers, surveillance cameras, greater police presence — they’ve all come at a cost. We have all paid it willingly for the sake of our children’s safety and security and a belief that we at least are not standing still. We have hardened our schools while trying not to harden our hearts.
But again, what’s an appropriate level of security? Let’s not fool ourselves. No amount of security can prevent an act of madness. The doors at Sandy Hook were locked and secured; the gunman shot his way in. At Parkland, an armed officer was on campus but out of position.
Everyday life is full of risk and trade-offs. How far do we go to obtain a reasonable sense of security?
This question has weighed on me for two weeks since receiving an automated call from Moore County Schools advising that the district would soon partner with Southern Pines-based K2 Solutions to use detection dogs for random searches for drugs and weapons in the five middle schools and three high schools. Since I have a child in each, this hit home, literally.
Moore County has used police dogs in the past for random searches and displays of deterrence. But the cops are busy and can’t spare their dogs’ time. So on Feb. 14, Moore County Schools entered a contract with K2.
The first word of this came in Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey’s February monthly communication to the Board of Education.
“MCS and K2 Solutions have entered into a … mutually beneficial partnership that, at no cost to the district, would provide a canine presence for safety and security purposes specifically for the deterrence and detection of drugs, weapons, or explosives on Moore County Schools campuses,” his briefing states.
It goes on: “There are elements of our plan that we prefer not to share with the general public as doing so might limit the intended impact. For this reason, I encourage you to contact Dr. Seth Powers directly with any questions related to this partnership and its operation.”
In The Pilot’s story last Sunday, Powers said the dogs would be limited to common areas like courtyards, parking lots and cafeterias, and that no individual student would be sniffed. He said that “a number of our secondary principals” asked about having the dogs as a show of deterrence, more than anything else.
Last Monday, I asked for a copy of the district’s contract with K2. Three days later, I got a copy moderately blacked out by school attorneys. The exact scope of work and details are redacted, so we still don’t know what will be done. I posted the documents with this column on thepilot.com.
Some details that weren’t censored:
- K2 can’t search so as to bias a particular group of students;
- The company can’t use “canines that are commonly perceived as aggressive.” Breeds specified include German shepherd, Belgian Malinois and pit bull.
- With a principal’s permission, K2 can bring puppies to elementary schools “for socialization purposes as part of the training for future detection canines. As a part of this early training young canines will only search for toys.”
So just how real is the threat to our schools? To answer that, I studied 10 years of data on “reportable crimes” submitted by Moore County Schools to the state Department of Public Instruction. The state issues a report annually cataloguing each district’s report of serious offenses. These range from assault, arson, robbery and bomb threat to possession of a firearm, possession of drugs, or possession of weapons other than a gun.
Here’s what that data showed:
- Going back to the 2008-09 school year, Moore County has reported seven instances of possession of a firearm. Of that number, three were in 2008-09. So in the last nine years, there have been four incidences of weapons among its 23 schools.
- Possession of weapons other than a firearm: 336 incidences reported over 10 years. There’s no detail on what weapons, but I’d guess many were pocket knives, hunting knives — in deer season some kids have their knives handy — or mace.
- Possession of drugs other than alcohol: 579 incidences over 10 years.
The number of reportable offenses has also been trending down over the years. In 2008-09, there were 148 reported incidents. Last year, there were 112, the highest count since 2009-10, when 132 offenses were reported.
The school district says the mere appearance of the dogs deters bad behavior. I think I know the juvenile mind — as the parent of two of them — enough to say that kids aren’t rational thinkers. They’re more likely to try to sneak something by a dog, assuming they even remember they’re carrying contraband on them.
In the end, three main things bother me about this whole deal.
First, where’s the documented need? Will this contract make our kids safer than they are now? How does one quantify that? By the mere presence of a deterrent? If the presence of weapons is a significant problem — and the data doesn’t support that — then take the logical step some other school districts have done and install metal detectors. Make kids carry only clear bags. That’ll be more of a deterrent than a random search from a dog team.
Second, the district is proud that this service is free. But what it’s really doing is providing free training opportunities to a private business, K2. The company is obtaining valuable time putting its dogs in crowds and developing feedback on those animals they can then use for their own commercial purposes.
Moore County Schools is helping to build a better detection dog and getting no compensation for it. So if we’re really going to do this, how about we bid this out and get some value from our kids? Sound mercenary? It kind of already is.
Lastly, at what point do we sacrifice the notion of freedom for security? Would our schools be safer if a fencing contractor offered free concertina wire around the perimeter? Absolutely. What about parking a donated military-surplus armored personnel carrier at the front entrance? Let’s drop our objections and just allow teachers to carry firearms or Tasers.
I want my children — your children — safe at school. And they are — more so than they were five or 10 years ago.
But in the process, are we conditioning them to life under a state of constant surveillance? It all feels rather dystopian.
Most kids will just shrug off the prospect of random dog searches. They’re so keyed in to security, they’re not likely to understand what they’re sacrificing for it. Do we?