Springfield Public Schools has hired a retired canine handler to regularly search middle and high schools for drugs, bombs and guns, a move school officials say will serve as a deterrent to bringing contraband into the buildings and possibly avoid an evacuation when a bomb threat is received.
The school board last week hired former Springfield police officer Ron Howard, who retired in 2016 after 27 years, including 20 training police dogs and handlers.
Howard will be paid $25 per hour — the standard rate the district pays off-duty officers, said Jason Wind, director of school support.
Having dogs search lockers and school grounds is nothing new, according to Jon Filbrun, the district’s coordinator of security and safety.
Random searches have been conducted two to four times per year at middle and high schools, using dogs from the Springfield Police Department and Illinois Secretary of State Police.
But relying on outside agencies also means the district is subject to the agency’s availability, Filbrun said.
In the case of serious incidents — like multiple threats that caused four schools to be evacuated in October — that’s not a problem. But doing searches on a regular basis isn’t as feasible, he said.
“We had to depend on if the agency was able to pull officers away,” Filbrun said.
Wind said Howard and his dog will rotate through several buildings, typically working between two to four hours total per week.
The dog is trained to detect guns, drugs and bombs. Filbrun called the searches an “added preventative” to keeping contraband out of the buildings.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” he said. “We want kids to know the dog is going to be there searching for these things. Hopefully that will make kids think twice not to bring it to school.”
On Wednesday morning, Howard and Styxx, a 2 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois he owns and trained, searched lockers at Grant Middle School, 1800 W. Monroe St.
The search, conducted while class was in session, lasted a little under an hour and covered most of the main floor and upstairs hallways. No contraband was found.
Wind said the times of the searches will vary, occurring during the school day, after hours or before students arrive in the morning.
During school hours, students in the part of the building where the dog is sniffing have to stay in the classroom, but those on a different floor can go into the hallway, Filbrun said, adding the dog will be kept on a leash and cars also could be searched.
Both Wind and Filbrun also said they do not believe the searches would disrupt classroom learning, noting during previous searches outside agencies brought in eight or nine dogs, forcing every student to remain in the classroom.
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