Local law enforcement agencies, along with the District Attorney, met with the Thomaston-Upson School Board at a called work session last week to discuss the school system’s use of Interquest Canine Detection for drug searches in the local schools. Upson County Sheriff Dan Kilgore, Thomaston Police Chief Dan Greathouse, District Attorney Scott Ballard and Assistant District Attorney Ben Coker told the BOE they had reservations about using the company for fear that it would cause problems if/when cases went to court. The school board signed a contract with Interquest in December, which is effective from January 2013 through May 2014, however they intend to continue working with the local law enforcement agencies as well.
“We support the school system whole heartedly and we hope that you know that,” said Kilgore, speaking on behalf of the group. “We want our schools to be a safe place for students and the educators; that is a top priority for all of us. We take the drug problem in our community seriously and want to do everything we can to make a positive difference in that area.”
A concern the board had when using local agencies dealt with students being tipped off about the upcoming search, therefore limiting the effectiveness. The Interquest program uses a system of blackout dates for when they are not allowed to come. Then, any other day they can show up and do a search; no one would know they are coming ahead of time.
Kilgore agreed that was a great system to have in place and one that the Sheriff’s Office could use as well because he knows that as soon as a law enforcement officer is seen stepping foot on campus, there are text messages going out letting everyone know that they are there. Currently, they only search the schools at the request of the principals, which is about twice a year.
A main concern that local officials have is with dogs the Interquest program uses. When law enforcement does a search, their dogs can only work for about 45 minutes straight before they become fatigued which is why they bring 4-6 dogs with them. Interquest only uses one dog that they say can search for eight hours straight and is trained to find not only illegal drugs, but also alcohol, gun powder, prescription medication and residual odor. Kilgore noted that as law enforcement they would need to know the dog found an illegal substance to have probable cause.
District Attorney Scott Ballard also had some concerns about the exceptional abilities of the Interquest dogs.
“This is a mightily talented dog as far as I can tell and I think there may be some credibility issues raised (in court). Defense attorney’s are going to question the credibility of a dog that has been working over eight hours and can determine so many different items.”
Ballard is also concerned with the way a substance is handled before law enforcement is involved. There is a certain procedure that is followed by local and state agencies when collecting evidence to make sure there has been no tampering when presented in a case and if the company doesn’t follow the same type of system, then it is going to be hard to trace the drugs back to a specific person.
“We don’t want it to become that the best place to commit a crime and make it un-prosecutable, is in our schools,” Ballard said.
He also brought up a point about the school system incurring additional costs when the Interquest representative is needed in court. School Board Attorney Alan Connell told the board that Interquest charges $425 per half day to be in court. Kilgore noted that they can provide the same services locally at no additional cost to the tax payer.
The DA’s office is willing to work with the school board in any way possible without jeopardizing their ability to convict people who have committed a crime or in juvenile cases judicate the delinquent, noted Ballard. Interquest would need to meet their requirements however to ensure a successful case.
Board Chairman Keith Rohling noted that it was not their intent to replace the law enforcement, but rather to supplement it to discourage more students from taking part in illegal activities. The contract the board has with Interquest will go through May of next year and was designed for seven visits total, which included one assembly each at the high school and the middle school. After hearing all the comments made by local officials, board member Terrell Jackson stated he wished they had talked with these gentlemen before signing the contract because he feels using Interquest raises more problems than benefits.
T-U School Superintendent Dr. Maggie Shook stated the schools have always had a very positive and strong working relationship with the local agencies in the past and wants that to continue.
The school system is obligated to finish out the contract with Interquest, but they will also be working with the local law enforcement agencies to perform more searches in the schools to continue working on eliminating the drug problem.