PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - Portsmouth High School student Sarah Dicks says she felt violated when her modern European history class was interrupted recently so police dogs could sniff student backpacks for illicit drugs.
"They announced that no one could leave the rooms at all, not even to go to the bathroom," said Dicks, 18.
"Someone came by and announced they were doing a drug search, and we should put our backpacks in the hall. Then we came back to class and waited."
Portsmouth police said the search by half a dozen dogs from Portsmouth and several neighboring police departments lasted little more than a half-hour, in the halls only, and was more like a routine airport inspection by narcotics dogs.
Dicks doesn't buy it.
"I just felt it was wrong -- a violation of my privacy. This is my personal stuff," she said. "I am not a suspect for using drugs. Why should they search my bags?"
Instead of surprise searches by drug dogs, Dicks recommends closer monitoring of students suspected of using drugs. "Are they disappearing from class and coming back stoned or wasted? Then you deal with that student -- not everyone."
About half a dozen drug-detecting dogs were deployed to sniff out drugs at the high school, in a cooperative effort between the Portsmouth police and school administration.
Last spring, Portsmouth parent Bob Montville launched a drive to beef up the school's drug and alcohol policies after a former Portsmouth High School basketball coach went public, complaining that a drug deal he had witnessed on high school grounds between two high school athletes two years earlier went unpunished.
Montville, a father of two middle-schoolers, organized a "drug summit." He started a website, www.seacoastparents.com. He and other parents called for the use of drug dogs.
"We're happy that there is going to be a continuing presence to let people know they're not going to tolerate drugs on school grounds," said Montville.
Portsmouth School Board member Charlie Vaughn said the dogs show students the school is serious about drugs.
"It shows the administration is serious that kids are there to be educated, not smoke a little pot," said Vaughn. The proof that the tactic worked, said Vaughn, is that "they didn't find anything."
But some parents find the tactic too confrontational.
"I don't like those dogs at all," said Sarah O'Callaghan, the mother of a senior. "If you begin to run high schools like you'd run a prison, the kids are going to start acting like prisoners.
"I do think there's a drug problem at the high school," O'Callaghan said, "but I think the way to deal with it is to create an environment based on trust with adults rather than on confrontation."
The search for drugs at Portsmouth High occurs amid reports that drug use among New Hampshire teenagers is rising.
A Dec. 1 report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies found that the juvenile arrest rate for drug crimes in New Hampshire is ninth highest in the country, having risen by 18 percent from 2000 to 2002.
The report, entitled "Teen Drug Use and Juvenile Crime in N.H.: High and Rising," cited a 2002 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, that said 12 percent of New Hampshire teenagers, or about 13,600, have serious alcohol or drug problems; and some 7,900 teenagers, or 7 percent of all youths -- need drug treatment and are not getting it.
Meanwhile, Portsmouth High School officials reported 40 drug and alcohol violations on record for 2002-2003.
Portsmouth police Captain David Ferland said the drug dog search lasted less than one school period, during which the dogs checked out 650 school bags, representing two-thirds of the high school's 1,100 students, and some 250 lockers.
Ferland, former chief trainer at the New Hampshire Police K-9 Academy, said most of the dogs were narcotics dogs trained to sniff drugs with olfactory organs 500 to 2,500 times more acute than human noses.
"Our primary motivation is to provide a drug-free educational environment for all the students that go to Portsmouth High School," said Ferland. "I think the dogs are a very limited intrusion. . . . School officials are allowed to go through every single pack, which I think would be much more intrusive."
Most of the dogs there were not trained to catch crooks, said Ferland. "These were German shepherds, but also labs and golden retrievers trained to sniff narcotics. They're the dogs you see at airports."
Still several students oppose the tactic.
"It's not like people are shooting up heroin in the bathrooms," said senior Lottie Borkland, 17, of Newington.
"We're not criminals," said senior Emily Stone, 17, of Portsmouth. "This is a school."
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