Calhoun County schools get gun-sniffing dog

ALEXANDRIA — Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said he wanted to pet the dog that was standing near him inside the library at Alexandria High School Thursday morning, but he said he couldn’t.

“His outfit says ‘don’t pet’,” McVeigh said, noting a patch on the dog’s collar.

The black Labrador’s patch is meant to denote that the dog has a job to do, said Randy Reaves, safety and security director for Calhoun County schools.

That dog, named QT, is trained to detect explosives and firearms that produce unique scents not obvious to humans, and he’s the first of his kind to be working in a school in the U.S., Reaves said.

Speaking with McVeigh at Thursday’s press conference were Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston; Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville; Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks; Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges; and Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson. Those lawmakers and Amerson all helped make the funds available to buy the $12,000 dog for the school system. The Sheriff’s Office also plans to pay for continuing training costs and dog care.

John Pearce, director of education at AMK9, the Anniston-based company licensed by Auburn University to train Vapor Wake dogs, as they’re known, said while his company hopes the market of selling dogs to schools grows, profit isn’t the only motivator for AMK9.

“We feel so strongly on the necessity for these dogs in schools, and we feel they’re such a good tool,” Pearce said.

That $12,000 cost to the school system came at a large discount, Pearce said. The St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball team during the summer bought two dogs — Shug and Upshaw — from AMK9 for almost $100,000, which included the cost of training the dogs and two handlers, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The technology has been used to help detect explosives on suicide bombers, Pearce said, but as school shootings began increasing in regularity, the company started working to train dogs to detect firearms.

The dogs can detect the scent of fired and unfired guns, as well as products that are used with guns, such as gun oil, Pearce said.

Both he and Calhoun County Superintendent Joe Dyar said the dogs are not trained to detect drugs.

There is the chance that a student who spent the morning cleaning a hunting rifle might alert the dog to the scent of that gun oil, Reaves said, but the dog isn’t trained to attack or chase a person. If the dog were to detect the scent of gun oil or gunpowder he’s trained to alert his handler, who would then use law enforcement training to determine how to handle the matter, Reaves said.

Eric Patterson, a school resource officer and Calhoun County sheriff’s deputy, has been trained to work with QT, said Dyar. Patterson and QT will spend time in each of the system’s 16 schools, milling through hallways between classes, through lunchrooms and at after school functions.

“We feel like the dog is going to bring a sense of relief to children,” Dyar said.

School administrators and law enforcement officials say such dogs will increase safety of the students, but some worry that detection dogs in schools is a step too far.

“Is this what we want in our public schools?  Treating our students like criminals?,” wrote Susan Watson, Director of the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an email to The Star.

Watson expressed concern over a loss of privacy, and wrote that “we could expect that any number of students might cause a dog to alert for participating in completely legal activities, like target practice. This is an overreaction to tragic events.”

Citing the need for increased safety, Reaves pointed to the shooting last week at a Washington high school in which a student shot five fellow students. According to press reports, two victims died, and three others were injured. The shooter killed himself.

Reaves said that if the same thing had happened at Alexandria High, QT might not have detected the shooter, but he has that ability, and that adds one more layer of security.

“There is a chance. There’s no guarantee, but there is a chance,” Reaves said.

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