Luke the police dog is ready for another year of walking the halls of North Hall High School.
The sniffer on the 4-year-old chocolate lab is trained to pick up the scent of illegal drugs from lockers, parked cars and book bags. And his presence at the school has made a difference, said his handler, Hall County School Resource Officer Jeff Fleming.
"Quite a bit," Fleming said. "A lot fewer kids are wanting to carry drugs to school. That’s the big deterrent of having the dogs."
In the two-plus years drug dogs have been used by Hall County Sheriff’s School Resource Officers, drug arrests in county schools are down by 59 percent. The dogs are assigned to four of the Hall County School District’s six high schools and are used for random, unannounced sweeps throughout the year in all of the schools.
The drug dogs, along with a Drug Information Reward Program that pays anonymous tipsters $200, have earned the Hall County Sheriff’s Office national recognition for its school-based programs for the second straight year.
The School Safety Advocacy Council recently awarded the sheriff’s office and four other law enforcement agencies from across the nation with the 2009 Exemplary School Safety Award. Last year, the office was named Model Agency of the Year by the National Association of School Resource Officers.
"I’m not surprised," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. "I’ll put our sheriff’s department and our school faculty up against any in the country, and I think they ought to be getting recognized. This is just further proof of that."
Schofield played a big role in the current get-tough posture of the school district when it comes to illegal drugs. The Hall County school board revised its policies to allow for random drug sweeps within the schools with an eye toward greater deterrence, and pledged to pay half of each $200 reward given to students for tips that led to drug arrests.
Numbers suggest the programs have made an impact. In 2007, there were 62 drug arrests made by Hall County SROs. Last year the number dropped to 36.
There have been 49 arrests made through the Drug Information Reward program, with a total of $9,800 paid out to anonymous tipsters. The sheriff’s office funds its half of the program through seized funds in drug arrest forfeiture cases.
"This has given the kids an opportunity to be rewarded for being more proactive in the schools and gives them incentive to make their schools a better place to learn and grow," said Lt. Gene Joy, the Hall County Sheriff’s director of school-based programs.
The dogs, which cost nearly $7,000 each, not including training expenses, were made possible by donations from private individuals. Officials hope to eventually get drug dogs for Chestatee and Flowery Branch high schools.
Schofield praised the school district’s partnership with Sheriff Steve Cronic and his deputies.
"There are two ways to lower your drug arrests," Schofield said. "One is to spend less time chasing it, and the other is to send a strong message that we’re just not going to tolerate that in our schools. We’ve chosen the second."