How K-12 districts use K-9s for security

Detection dogs sniff out drugs, explosives and dangerous weapons, and can be more effective than traditional security staffs in certain situations.

After receiving 11 bomb threats in the 2017-18 school year, administrators at Springfield Public Schools in Illinois (14,000 students) employed a new security officer: an explosives-sniffing Belgian Malinois named Styxx.

“It’s a proactive approach,” says Superintendent Jennifer Gill. “The fact that students know that we’re doing these random searches is a bigger deterrent than anything we’ve been able to put in place.”

District security coordinators create a rotating schedule of random sweeps at every high school and middle school, and sometimes at the elementary schools. They can also call in the K-9 for emergency situations, Gill says. Styxx can cover a school within an hour, detecting any explosives, guns or weapons.

Students exit their classroom during a search. If Styxx detects a scent, his handler investigates.

Springfield has not received any bomb threats—from students or other troublemakers—this school year, since Styxx joined the staff, Gill says. A retired officer is currently training a second dog for the district.

Daily K-9 deployment

No data exists on the number of K-9 security teams employed by U.S. school districts. However, organizations such as K9s4KIDs, which trains and sells dogs for K-12 and higher ed security, report an uptick in interest from administrators in recent years.

“Canines have been in contract labor situations in and out of schools for years, but you don’t get the same satisfaction and solidarity as you do knowing that the same one will be there every day,” says Kristi Schiller, founder of K9s4KIDs.

Training detection dogs for schools is intensive and takes up to 16 weeks, Schiller says. Dogs trained by her organization range in cost from $15,000 to $35,000, depending on their skill set.

After a student in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was fatally shot at a school bus stop in January, the district purchased a gun-detection K-9 named Nico, who is expected to finish training in May.

Detection dogs are trained to identify specific scents, such as drugs or ammunition, and are rewarded for it with food or a toy, says Lisa Mangum, chief of the North Carolina district’s police department.

5-minute search

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (147,000 students) has employed a narcotics-detecting Labrador retriever named Gage since 2017.

Since purchasing Gage, who cost the district $8,000 before training, district police haven’t found as many drugs on school property, Mangum says. “We’re hoping that by having our dogs go in and conduct these searches, it will prevent students from bringing guns, weapons and drugs into our schools,” she says. 

The district has 31 high schools, and Gage typically searches five schools per week. A classroom search takes up to five minutes, Mangum says.

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When Nico, the gun-detection K-9, finishes training, he will conduct safety searches more quickly than human security staff alone, Mangum says. Nico cost the district $10,500, and is being trained by a district K-9 handler.

Communication is a key part of helping parents feel comfortable with the dogs, Mangum says. On the day of a search, parents receive a message alerting them that the screening will be conducted at their child’s school. Parents are told if anything is found.

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