Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles about how the community as a whole is dealing with drug use among its young people. The stories will give the reader an in-depth look at how schools, law enforcement officials and families are fighting drug use. The series continues with this story about the effort to keep drugs out of area high schools with canine searches. Part 1 | Part 2
NORTH SHORE — During the school year, the parking lot at Nicolet High School is a safe haven for drug users and dealers, according to a Nicolet mother and her daughter who spoke this spring under the condition of anonymity to protect the teen’s safety.
“That is like a big drug fest out there. They buy and sell and do whatever,” the mother said, relaying what her daughter had told her during a casual conversation.
Her daughter, a freshman at the time, corroborated her mother’s story during a phone interview days later, saying she has witnessed fellow students congregating in vehicles in the parking lot and driving away from the school to use drugs.
Although there is no firm evidence to confirm their vivid account of the daily activity on the grounds, their story is emblematic of the growing concern that drugs may increasingly be finding their way onto North Shore high school campuses.
The mother, who has lived in the area about 10 years, described herself as an involved parent. She has experienced firsthand the toll narcotics can take, having been married once to a man who is manic-depressive and has a drug and alcohol problem.
“I don’t want to wake up one day and turn on the news, like those parents in Cedarburg, and find out there’s a kid in our area that overdosed and that I did nothing. That makes me guilty just like the person who sold it,” she said, referring to the death of a 17-year-old teenage girl in Cedarburg, due to an apparent heroin overdose in November.
The same mother spoke to John Gscheidmeier, police liaison at the high school, before she came forward with her story to the North Shore Herald.
“What that mother told me was that there is potentially dealing in the parking lot in the afternoon, so I am kind of working on that, but that is a little bit of a difficult one to work on because I don’t have any details at all,” he said this spring during a brief interview.
Drug use ‘getting worse’
A former student also came forward to describe her experience at Nicolet as it pertains to drug use.
“It’s just getting worse and worse. In our grade, it seemed like there was a lot of pot smokers. Below us were coke and meth (use). It just seemed like it was getting harder and harder,” said the graduate of the class of 2002, who along with the freshman, was granted anonymity due to fears of retribution after telling their stories.
“I don’t think they (the administration) understood what was really going on, what was going on out in the parking lots or after school.
People would skip class all the time and do that,” she added.
The Glendale mother placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of school district leaders. Elliott Moeser, the district superintendent, responded emphatically to the mother’s claim regarding drug use in the parking lot.
He said that the district has staff patrolling the parking lot and that students, unless they are leaving for a school-related activity such as an internship, are not allowed in the parking lot during the school day.
“I’ve never received that phone call. … Why didn’t they call me?” he asked in June. “If that person (the Glendale mother) is truly concerned about the health and safety of a child, I would think they would have called me to rectify a problem if it did exist.”
One of the solutions the mother suggested was the use of random canine searches, a tool that was used in late May at Nicolet.
“It’s prevention and a deterrent,” said Moeser, who oversaw the only canine search in North Shore high schools last school year and the first at the school in 18 years.
“ … It needs to be emphasized that this is not an end in itself. It is one tool in an effort to make a school a safe and healthy place for students, for staff, for visitors and for parents.”
No drugs found in search
No drugs were found on the school premises during the search in which nine dogs from six agencies participated.
“No one knew we were going to do this. It was a well-kept secret,” Moeser said. “Our hope is not that we are going to catch somebody; our hope is that it never comes on the property in the first place.”
In addition to dog searches, Nicolet does periodically employ metal detectors. These scans, which can be performed on all students and their belongings, are also unannounced. On a daily basis, anyone who enters the building after school has started goes through a metal detector search.
Since a canine search is on school property, high school administrators — not local law enforcement officials — ultimately decide when to use dogs to sniff for drugs. For about 1 1/2 years, Gscheidmeier said he went “toe to toe” with Moeser, imploring him to use a canine search.
“I am glad parents are saying that this is a good tool and we should be utilizing it. Of course it is not the end all and be all,” he said. “It’s not going to be the big thing that prevents kids from bringing drugs in, but it’s another tool that we use to sweep the school to find out what’s there and what isn’t.”
Gscheidmeier said he believes the lack of use of canine searches is partly due to the political ramifications and public perception that comes with it.
“What it really boils down to is him doing what is right, and that is the most important part of everything,” he said of Moeser.
“We know kids are using. This rumor about dealing in the parking lot could be completely legitimate, but then again, it could be a bunch of bunk. No one knows.
“When you involve the schools, the police, the community, it does get a little political.”
Effort must be at all levels
Moeser said that a solid mix of enforcement and education at school, along with a communitywide effort, is essential in keeping young people away from drugs.
“You can’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” he said. “Do we feel that we should be a part of a community response? The answer is yes. Do we bury our heads in the ground and say everything is going just hunky-dory? No, we are not going to (say) that, but we will (say) that it’s a community issue and we are part of that community.”
Nicolet is not alone in its battle to keep drugs out of its buildings and off of its grounds. Several canine searches were planned for Brown Deer, but due to scheduling conflicts with the search team and dogs, they were never carried out.
“We have done one every year for the past four to five years,” Brown Deer Superintendent Bruce Connolly said. “We have incorporated it with disaster drills and lock down procedures.”
Connolly said all of the canine searches under his watch have rendered nothing.
“It’s not to say that our kids don’t abuse drugs. It’s not to say that our kids don’t abuse alcohol. It’s not to say that they don’t participate in those peer-related events, but basically they know that (with the) zero-tolerance policy of the school district they are going to be expelled,” he said.
At Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, the locker search policies make no mention of canine searches.
“We would actually do a physical search,” said Shorewood High School Assistant Principal Ken Warren, who has been at the district for 33 years.
“We have never brought in dogs to do a search and we don’t have any board direction or policy on dog searches at this point,” Warren said.
High school administrators pointed out that one of the reasons canine searches are not as effective as they might seem is that students may be using but not bringing drugs to school or storing them in their lockers.
“It probably won’t be a deterrent unless it is done on a regular basis,” Warren added. “I don’t think that dogs would be real beneficial unless we thought that there was really a lot of stuff brought on campus.”
Students given help
High school students throughout the area are exposed to the topic of substance abuse and the harm of drugs on the body in health classes. When a student is involved with drugs, area high schools administrators, in general, will share the information with law enforcement officials and are willing to assist the child in seeking help.
However, from Warren’s standpoint, eliminating drugs from a teenager’s life is more that just simply a battle for the schools to wage.
Parents need to watch for the typical signs, such as if the child has changed his social network, is coming home past curfew or sleeping more.
“A part of it is that there is a lot of denial throughout the community to how extensive the drug problem is,” he said. “I think part of it is that (parents) really don’t want to know. Maybe they are afraid to know because they don’t know what to do with it if they are confronted with it, and there is also a fear of confronting their own use.”
Whitefish Bay Superintendent Jim Rickabaugh, who has been with the district since 2000, said he is unaware of any time the school has had a full-scale search of all lockers.
“One, that would take a great deal of time, and two, probably not something that we would get involved in,” Rickabaugh said. “For the most part, a student’s locker would be searched only if there is some reason to believe that there are items contained in the locker that shouldn’t be there.”
All four high school policies clearly state that the districts own the lockers and that they never relinquish that ownership when they assign them to students. Officials from the districts contend that canine searches are just one tool in the effort to make schools drug free.
Where to get help:
Narcotics Anonymous (414) 985-1932
Cocaine Anonymous Wisconsin
www.cawisconsin.org (414) 445-5433
Mental Health Association in Milwaukee County www.mhamilw.org (414) 276-3122
Drug Abuse Resistance Education
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