Getting ‘ruff’ on violence and the presence of harmful substances

Three districts use specially trained dogs to increase student safety
By: | Issue: March 2020
February 13, 2020
Sniffing out crime—K-9 Sierra inspects cars at the Houston High School with Tim Tefft of Interquest Detection Canines.

Police dog teams are familiar to all, and therapy dogs increasingly spend time in schools.

Now, in some districts, security officers are patrolling their buildings with specially trained school dogs that can follow the sound and odor of gunfire and firearms to neutralize threats, potentially before a situation happens. These canines can pull their dog handler toward a weapon and grab onto a shooter’s arms until incapacitated. School officials and their canine companions continuously train, participate in active shooter drills and even live together to strengthen their bond. Meanwhile, other schools regularly have k9 security teams from outside the district visit their campuses to sniff out harmful substances.

First school dog security team

The Cumberland County Technical Education Center in New Jersey has recruited its first dog to train and patrol a school with a district employee—Steve Manera, a campus safety security officer. Every day, Manera and his Dutch shepherd named Meadow walk through campus, which includes the high school and Cumberland County College.

Meadow is named after Meadow Pollack, a victim in the Parkland school shooting.

K-9 Meadow and her canine handler Steve Manera (left) pose with K-9 Sailor and her handler Jason Wallick. Sailor participates in numerous active shooter drills.

Men’s best friends—K-9 Meadow and her handler Steve Manera (left) pose with K-9 Sailor and her handler Jason Wallick.

“Our school and college boards had some concerns about introducing a canine that most people associate with law enforcement and military duties,” says Andres Lopez Jr., director of campus safety and security at the high school. “But they were willing to try anything that we believed would keep our kids safer.”

In July 2018, Manera and Meadow began training with Skool Dogs, a group that handles and trains canine teams to detect a potential or actual shooter. Meadow was the first dog to graduate from the school-oriented course last March. “The first level of training involves becoming familiar with each other,” says Lopez Jr. “The dog actually lives with the Manera
family.”

Manera and Meadow also trained at the Cumberland County campus. “The dog has to be familiar with not just the inside of the high school, but outside, along with the 14 other buildings at the college,” says Lopez Jr. “There has to be a lot of training because if this dog bites someone in the school that wouldn’t go over too well.”

Meadow has been socialized enough that students can pet her with Manera’s permission and guidance. “She’s not beyond approach, but she does act as a major deterrent,” says Lopez Jr. “She has a presence that demands attention.”

‘The perfect fit’

Unlike police dog and k9 security teams, Meadow and her canine handler are school district employees. But Meadow is not like therapy dogs either. Students must ask permission first before they can pet her.By March, Coach and Canine Handler Jason Wallick of Garaway Local Schools in Ohio and a Belgium Malinois named Sailor will have been a team like Manera and Meadow for two months. In fact, Wallick and Sailor recently went to Cumberland County to shadow Manera and Meadow for two weeks. “They put me at ease by teaching me what to expect and what I would go through with Sailor,” says Wallick, a safety and security official. “After those two weeks, Cumberland kept Sailor for additional training while I went back to my district, which is another reason why my superintendent liked this setup.”

Sailor was chosen specifically for Wallick, who says they “are a perfect fit.” Sailor lives with Wallick and his family.

The pair now patrols the district’s five schools every day and participates in numerous active shooter drills—but never with students since many active shooters have been students who attacked their own school.

“The drills are amazing to see because Sailor can be on the other side of the building and start running at 30 mph for the [staged] active shooter, and our handler will release Sailor with no command necessary,” says Superintendent James Millet. “In our training, we had people screaming, jumping and running in different directions, and Sailor didn’t even look at them.”

Trainers currently come to the district twice per year to work with Wallick and Sailor. “You can’t have enough training for something like
this when there is so much on the line,” says Wallick.

Sniffing out harmful substances

Trained K9 security dogs are being used to detect substances that should not be on school grounds, too. In January, Houston High School of Germantown Municipal School District in Tennessee received its first monthly inspection from Sierra and her handler, Tim Tefft of Interquest Detection Canines, a private company.

Tefft only alerts Houston High on the day he visits with Sierra, who sniffs each car in the school parking lot for alcohol, firearms, hydrocodone and marijuana. (The two don’t venture inside since the school eliminated lockers after going 1-to-1.) “The dog will lie down if she finds a foreign substance,” says Chauncey Bland, assistant superintendent of student services. “After inspecting 15 cars, Tim has the dog sniff and fetch a toy to refresh her scent for the entire three-hour inspection.”

Germantown officials let parents know that Sierra would not come in contact with their children and provided assurances that their child’s allergy medicine, for example, would not trigger Sierra.

Bland says, “Any time you can be proactive and provide a service that keeps kids safe and secure, everyone will be on board.”