They can smell dangerous substances left behind for more than a day. They can tell if an individual has handled and even used a firearm based solely on scent. They use state-of-the-art training and techniques to assure a safe, healthy and welcoming school environment.
They also crave treats, a couple scoops of kibble, multiple walks and leashed bathroom breaks.
DeKalb County School District (DCSD) welcomed two new members to its Public Safety division in January 2018: K-9 units Rex and Rocky. The K-9s—tasked with locating drugs and weapons—are part of a new, comprehensive push for public safety at DCSD schools and facilities.
According to DCSD Public Safety Director Bradley Gober, Rex or Rocky will visit a random school each week to assure no illegal substances or weapons are on campus. He said the K-9s act as a deterrent and are present to discourage harmful behavior.
“K-9 Units are effective in several different ways,” said Gober. “When students, parents and teachers know you have a K-9 Unit, they know the possibility for a K-9 search is always there.”
Rex, a German Shepherd K-9 Unit tasked with sniffing out drugs, possesses a sense of smell so strong that it can tell where someone that has used drugs has traveled. For example, if an individual uses drugs in the morning and travels throughout a facility over the course of one day, Rex can track his or her movements down to the step.
Rocky, a Labrador K-9 Unit that specializes in weaponry, possesses a similar asset. By singling out the components found in gunpowder, Rocky can detect weapons as well as who has been handling them.
Gober said the dogs differ from traditional law enforcement canines by being non-aggressive. If the dogs become acclimated well enough, he said he hopes to eventually deploy Rex and Rocky to DCSD event gatherings and sport events.
“Sometimes officers want patrol dogs, who are not only trained to detect odors, but trained to defend and apprehend suspects,” Gober said. “Being that we’re in a school setting, we sought after and acquired dogs who are more friendly. We’ve made sure to take our time.”
So far, Rocky has helped de-escalate a situation at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School. Similarly, Rex has already made an unannounced search at Lakeside High School.
“We didn’t find anything, which is very positive,” Gober said.
DCSD has employed the use of K-9s before, but had to cut the program due to budget restraints. Gober said the division has been seeking avenues to acquire the K-9 Units since September 2017 and plans to have two more by the 2018-2019 school year.
Gober said it takes a dedicated public safety officer to handle K-9 Units, which are often hard to find. In addition to taking dogs to additional training at city- and countywide law enforcement agencies, officers typically have to welcome a new member to their family.
“It’s not like they leave the dogs at Public Safety and go home,” Gober said. “They’re responsible for the dogs when off-duty and on weekends. They have to feed the dogs, care for the dogs and give them a proper place to be stored—little nuances that people don’t think about. It’s a big commitment.”
DCSD Public Safety Officers John Brooks and Joseph Bielicki, who work with Rex and Rocky, have worked with K-9 Units before. The two officers said they appreciate having more tools to keep students, teachers and staff safe.
“We’re school resource officers first and K-9 officers second,” Bielicki said. “The K-9 is a tool to keep things out of the school system—but it’s also like having a two year-old with you every day. It has to be something you really want to do.”
Bielicki said the K-9 unit fits into his lifestyle at home, which involves horses and other farm animals.
“I’m at Lithonia High School now,” said Brooks. “The students are making an adjustment to the dog now, but most students ask about the dog and take ownership. Kids will come into the office just to see [Rex]. You’ll walk down the hall and kids will say, ‘That’s my dog!’ You’re always going to have a fear factor, but we’re seeing a more positive outcome.”
Bielicki said the dogs can actually act as a positive distraction for not only students, but teachers and staff.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Bielicki said. “The dogs have to get used to the routine—they’ve come from a kennel, and now they’re in hallways with 1,600 kids.”
Bielicki said it’s hard to put into words and quantify the dogs’ positive impact on the district in the first month alone.
“I can’t tell you how many guns have not come to school because we have a gun dog now. I can’t tell you how many illegal substances are not coming into school because there’s a fear of a narcotics dog coming through,” Bielicki said.
Chief Gober said the new K-9 Units are part of an active effort to evolve DCSD’s sense of safety. He credits initiatives and support by Superintendent Green in allowing him to fulfill this mission.
“Dr. Green is very big on safety and security,” Gober said. “His primary mission, of course, is to educate children and make them into productive members of society by getting them ready for college, continuing their education, the workplace or the military. In order to do that, we have to have a safe environment… All these measures you’re seeing are all preventative. DCSD is a very safe school system, but we want to be preventative and not reactionary.”
Gober said DCSD’s approach to safety has to change to keep up with a changing social climate. While DCSD already uses security cameras, web filters, and stations school resource officers at every school, more measures are being included in new school construction.
“Everything you see in the schoolhouse is just a microcosm of what happens in the community and the world,” he said. “We want to be on the cutting edge of that—to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep our students, parents, faculty and staff safe while they’re in our district.”
Other new safety measures expected to be implemented at DeKalb County School District (DCSD) as part of a plan of action include:
Roll Down Doors – The new construction of school buildings includes roll down doors that keep unauthorized or unwanted individuals off school property.
Metal Detectors – Metal detectors will be installed at the entrances of five initial high school sites as part of a pilot security program. These schools include Towers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cross Keys, Stone Mountain and Lakeside high schools.
Parental & Staff Education – School resource officers plan to hold more sessions with students, parents and staff to speak about gangs and crime awareness. Additional officers will also be identified to undergo Gang Resistant Education and Training (GREAT) to help identify and connect with students who have possible gang involvement.
Safe School Audits – A team of DCSD staff will conduct random audits to assist schools with the identification of on-campus areas that may need additional supervision. Such areas may be conducive to loitering or unwanted behavior.