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Roaring Fork School District to introduce drug-sniffing dogs to campuses, reactions mixed

The Roaring Fork School District announced on Feb. 7 that it’s planning to implement drug-sniffing dogs at some of its schools as early as this spring. However, staff still need to develop a plan before K-9 units arrive on campuses.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
The Roaring Fork School District announced on Feb. 7 that it’s planning to implement drug-sniffing dogs at some of its schools as early as this spring. However, staff still need to develop a plan before K-9 units arrive on campuses.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) staff plan to introduce drug-sniffing dogs to its campuses as early as this spring, noting increased evidence of drug use among the student body, based on “disciplinary actions and qualitative data.”

Interim Superintendent Anna Cole announced the decision at a school board meeting on Feb. 7.

“We are moving forward, developing protocols and getting aligned on how we could do this in ways that center those relationships with kids and families, making sure we're ensuring safety for all students,” Cole told the board.

During a series of community forums in January, Cole and other staff collected feedback from families on potential drug prevention policies, including whether or not to introduce K-9 units.

Some parents and school partners expressed concerns about using dogs, saying it could erode trust between students and the administration.

Jarid Rollins, a licensed clinical social worker from MidValley Family Practice, attended one of the meetings in Basalt on Jan. 18 and said that canines could deter students from showing up to school and seeking help for drug addiction.

“You have drug-sniffing dogs, and the kids are going to hide.” Rollins said. “They're going to get wind that something is going down and they're not going to show up. They're going to start avoiding more. We're going to see less and less of the kids that need that connection, because kids are smart. They're going to learn to get around it.”

But Cole said the district’s conversations with students yielded different responses. At last week’s school board meeting, she said many students they spoke to over the past few weeks during a series of listening sessions were open to the idea.

“Pretty much across the board, the students that we talked to were really supportive of this effort,” Cole said. “They felt that their schools could do it in ways that supported their safety, their trust … And so they gave us some great recommendations on how that could happen.”

So far, Cole said they’ve spoken with 10-12 students from all but one of the district’s high schools, but school board members questioned whether the samples were representative of the student body.

At Glenwood Springs High School, Cole said they only spoke to girls.

Expert opinions & next steps

According to Cole, law enforcement agencies suggested K-9 units as a possible solution to the district’s drug and alcohol issues, but youth development and harm reduction experts in Colorado say the strategy isn’t evidence-based.

Dr. Karl G. Hill, the director of the Prevention Science Program at CU Boulder, told Aspen Public Radio in an interview that effective programs teach kids to manage their impulses, emotions, and make good decisions.

“If you just do drug education, you think you're done,” Dr. Hill said. “You're not. It's part of this larger strategy of social emotional training for kids.”

Maggie Seldeen, the founder of High Rockies Harm Reduction, a non-profit dedicated to preventing overdose deaths, also has lingering questions about the decision.

“I’d love to know more about this decision, what evidence or input led to it and what they hope to achieve with these measures,” Seldeen said in a text message to Aspen Public Radio. “I’d like to see our tax dollars put toward more evidence-based prevention efforts rather than these punitive and fear-based strategies.”

RFSD said it hasn’t decided yet which schools will get the dogs.

District staff are considering other strategies to curb drug use among its students, including a more robust drug education program, more school resource officers, and closed campuses, where kids would not be allowed to leave school during the day.

Because many students in the district are accustomed to leaving campus during their free periods, Cole said that this policy would require an adjustment from students at the Feb. 7 board meeting.

“I think it's something we want to talk about,” Cole said. “I think there's a lot of conversation that would need to happen, with our students, especially, with our partners, with families.”

The district will continue to seek feedback on all of these strategies in the coming months, including during a series of safety forums in late February.

Forums will take place in Carbondale at Roaring Fork High School on Feb. 26, at Glenwood Springs High School on Feb. 27, and at Basalt High School on Feb. 28. Sessions will be held in English from 5-6:30 p.m. and in Spanish from 6:30-7 p.m at respective high schools.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.