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Hall schools recruit trained Labrador to sniff out drugs on campuses
Murph the drug dog will visit all county schools during the year
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Deputy Stan Watson wears his K-9 badge on his uniform. - photo by David Barnes

Drug arrests at Hall County Schools

2015-16: 21

2016-17: 17

At just 14 months old, Murph is easily the youngest employee in Hall County Schools.

He was born in the state of Washington and has only been in Georgia for a little more than a month, but his supervisor says he has adjusted quickly to his new life and job.

He has gone through extensive training for his work, which consists mostly of walking through middle and high schools looking for hidden items that are not supposed to be there.

Murph, a chocolate Labrador retriever, is the school district’s drug dog.

The school board voted earlier this year to put $50,000 in this year’s budget to try to keep drugs out of schools. That included about $15,000 to purchase Murph and train him with his handler, Deputy Stan Watson.

“He’s very intelligent for as young as he is; he’s a very smart dog,” Watson said of his new co-worker. “It’s amazing the abilities they have, just the way they’re bred. They’re not like a normal puppy dog. He wants to work all the time. When he walks into a building, he thinks it’s time to work; it’s not time for play.”

Watson and Murph are based at West Hall Middle School, where Watson works as the school resource officer. But he said he will be in all the schools during the year, conducting demonstrations at times in elementary schools and using Murph’s skills to find drugs in the middle and high schools on a more regular basis.

“Murph is trained to locate several different kinds of illegal and legal substances that may be found in the schools,” Watson said. “It’s amazing what they can be trained to find.”

Watson declined to name the drugs Murph has been trained to sniff out so as not to tip anyone off. He said he can be trained to detect other scents as well.

Information provided to The Times through an open records request with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office showed 38 drug-related arrests in 12 different schools in the Hall school system during the past two school years.

There were no more than four drug-related arrests at any one school in either school year, and many of the schools where an arrest was reported only had one in a year.

Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the decision to purchase Murph was an intentional effort to “do everything we possibly can to keep drugs out of our schools.”

Schofield said the rest of the money in the budget will help with other drug-related issues that could come up during the school year, including rewards for information, anonymous tip lines and educational programs.

“I see it absolutely as a deterrent, and I see it as message to our 99 percent of kids who come and do things right every day that, ‘You know what? We don’t want this crap in our schools.’ And I’m glad the adults who are working with us see it that way, too,’” Schofield said.

“We have really made some good progress in terms of working with the sheriff’s department on drugs, on gangs. But, again that’s no time to get complacent. It’s multipronged, but the common denominator is that any drugs is too much drugs in our schools.”

The superintendent said school officials are working on ways to free Watson up some at West Hall Middle to give him opportunities to make rounds at all the middle and high schools regularly.

“My desire, and what I have made clear, is that I want this dog to go to bed tired every night,” Schofield said. “He’s here for a reason.”

In addition to being at West Hall Middle, Watson said he and Murph also visited Johnson and West Hall high schools last week during the first week of school. He said visits to other schools will not follow a regular schedule, but will be “more of a random pick.”

“I don’t want to get any set schedule down so anybody could try to figure it out,” Watson said. “If we have anybody who’s going to be trying to do anything illegal in the school system, I want to keep them on their toes.”

Murph was purchased by the school district through Custom Canine Unlimited, a law enforcement canine training center in Maysville.

A.J. Vargas, chief executive officer for Custom Canine, said trainers from the company searched the country for a dog to meet the needs of the school district and traveled to Washington to test potential dogs.

“We go out and provide a thorough test almost like NFL teams do with their athletes,” Vargas said. “We selected actually four dogs, and based on the need of our Hall County School Board specifically, we then recommended Murph for them and said, ‘Hey, this dog is going to be perfect for your situation.’”

Once Murph arrived in Georgia, Custom Canine provided a couple of weeks of training on scents of drugs he would be searching for in his job. Watson then joined his companion for three weeks of training where he got to learn about Murph’s behaviors and information he would need to be a handler for a specially trained dog.

While he has never been a handler before, Watson said it is something he has been interested in learning.

“It was something I’ve always wanted to do with the sheriff’s office over the years,” said Watson, a 27-year veteran of the office. “I just kind of thought it would be something interesting to get into. The opportunity came up, and I was asked if I would be interested in it. And I took it.”

During a demonstration Wednesday afternoon at West Hall Middle, sheriff’s deputies kept the dog in the vehicle while they hid marijuana in lockers. Murph was all business. He sniffed through lockers in a hallway for several minutes until he located the specific locker where the drugs were located. He then sat still, identifying to Watson that he had located the drugs.

Once his search was confirmed, Murph was ready for his reward: a tennis ball.

“It’s a game to him,” Watson said. “He gets a reward when he finds something. It’s his ball. When he gets the ball, he’s goes crazy like a dog. That’s what he works for. He works for that ball and getting that praise, that love, from the handler. That’s his drive.”

Murph lives with Watson and his family. He said away from work the dog is like any other pet — at least any other well-trained pet.

“He is very well-behaved at home,” he said. “He and my 8-year-old daughter get along great. She’s a little jealous because he pays more attention to me than he does her.”

Watson said the reaction at the schools has been “awesome.” Murph is only trained to find the drugs and not to attack or bite anyone.

“Very few have been scared; most have been excited about it,” he said.

West Hall Middle School Principal Rodney Stephens said students have reacted positively to Murph’s presence.

“I think they have been mostly excited,” Stephens said. “They understand that he’s working, and so when he’s out in the building, you can see that they’re very respectful of the fact that he’s doing a job. They tend to hold back and really don’t show a whole lot of attention to him, but you can kind of see the enthusiasm as he’s walking around.”

Stephens added that he believes the dog is good for the school.

“I think it adds an extra element of security,” he said. “I think it also gives the parents a certain element of security, and any of the avid dog lovers, of course, are really intrigued by it. My main concern when we first started talking about it was I wanted to make sure he was trained adequately and that he was well-behaved, which he obviously is.”