MONTROSE – When Colorado's new recreational marijuana laws are implemented in three weeks, keeping Montrose schools free from drugs and alcohol will remain a serious task for school resource officers. But while they cannot keep students from using illegal drugs, they can make the overall school environment healthier – and statistics from the past two years show they have already made a difference.
In a quiet Centennial Middle School classroom, just after the first-period bell had rung to start the school day, Montrose Police Department School Resource Officer Dennis Beery asked a group of seventh graders how many of them had ever seen marijuana.
The exercise was an attempt by Beery to initiate an honest dialogue with the students, with no fear of retribution.
After a moment, a few hands went up nervously in response to Beery's question.
"Anyone here used marijuana?" Beery asked.
A couple of hands remain raised, as Beery nodded his head in acknowledgement.
Some of the students said they used marijuana because they got it from their parents or siblings; some say they bought it from friends. But no one confesses to bringing it to school.
Beery is a 34-year law enforcement veteran, having 11 of those years with the Montrose Police Department, and another three as one of the department's two full-time resource officers. His position is part of Montrose County School District's proactive partnership with local law enforcement to keep kids from using marijuana, believed to be a “gateway drug” which leads to the use of more-addictive substances like methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin – or the newer "designer drugs" such as ecstasy.
"I'm here to educate you about these drugs and what they can do to you," Beery told the students. "These are illegal for a reason,” and especially problematic for youth, because, he said, “your brains are still in the critical stages of development.”
Beery conducts about six to eight drug classes per year in the Centennial and Columbine middle schools. The Montrose Police Department has a second officer, Trevis Booth, on duty at Montrose High School. Booth and Beery patrol the district's elementary schools, as well.
The Montrose Police Department funds the officers’ presence in the schools, and the Montrose County Sheriff Department funds a school resource officer at Olathe High School, as well as donates its narcotic detection canine, Oxx, and his handler, deputy Keith Sanders, to all district schools.
Drug Violations Declining
Montrose School District data show the number of drug violations has declined over the past two years, and district officials say the resource officers’ presence – and their work to educate students – is why.
During the 2010-2011 school year, the district recorded 49 drug violations. By far the most were at Montrose High School, which tallied 40; the rest of the violations were at Olathe High School (four), Olathe Middle School (three) and Vista Charter (two).
In 2011-2012, the total number declined to 35, with the number of violations at MHS falling by half, to 21. For the entire 2012-2013 school year, 33 drug violations were documented in district schools. Data do not show which schools recorded the violations, but do show that two cases resulted in expulsion of the students involved.
Booth, who has now spent eight years patrolling Montrose's schools, says the district has done a "very good job" partnering with law enforcement and keeping drugs away from schools, "for not only the at-risk kids, but for those who want to be here and want to get an education."
He works hard, patrolling streets and alleyways around the high school in an attempt to "push that activity away" from the school.
"For at least eight hours at school, they’re not able to smoke dope," he says of the students who do use marijuana.
Booth credits Oxx and his handler with helping to keep students from bringing drugs onto campus; the K-9 team conducts random searches every month in the Montrose and Olathe high and middle schools. In the past, at MHS, Oxx would record about 50 “hits" a month on narcotics; now, that number has fallen to about 10, according to Booth, who added that most of those hits were for close smelling of marijuana, not weed itself.
"Does that mean they are not using drugs?” Booth asks rhetorically. “No,” he says, “they are just being smarter about keeping it away from school.
"I guarantee we have done a good job in deterring that activity.”
Booth believes the best way to keep teenagers off of drugs to begin with is by stepping up both anti-drug efforts by parents, and drug education in elementary and middle school classrooms.
"Marijuana is a starter job, and our meth dealers know that," Booth says, adding he has seen "three or four kids sent to the ER because they got meth laced with marijuana. I've seen kids come in to MHS as freshmen getting As and Bs, and then start using marijuana, and they go from As and Bs to Ds and Fs.
“So you can't tell me that it's not the marijuana.”
Beery works to educate students in his drug classes about everything from how drugs like meth affect their bodies, to the possible adverse effects of drugs on their social lives – such as incarceration.
"We're not saying it's not out there,” Beery says of drugs. “That would kinda be like sticking your head in the sand. But if we can save one [student], we have done our job."
On Monday, Deputy Sanders, Oxx and Beery did a random sweep of Columbine.
By state statute, law enforcement officers are prohibited from searching inside lockers at will. But Oxx’s reaction serves to alert school officials, who then can search a suspected locker and alert law enforcement if narcotics are found.
On Monday's search, no drugs were found, but Oxx did detect a couple of "stinky jackets," with the residue likely brought in from outside of school.
Columbine Middle School Principal Ben Stevenson says if narcotics are found, the school follows strict district protocol.
A first offense results in a three-day out-of-school suspension, plus a parent-teacher conference; a second offense adds in another five-day suspension-plus-conference. The third offense is grounds for expulsion.
Stevenson says the combination of drug education, health education classes and use of resource officers explains the reduction. "I don't think any one solves it; it's the combination that decreases it," he says.
Expulsion is a last-resort option, and administrators and teachers try to work with at-risk students to keep them away from outside influences and in the school environment as much as possible.
"We try to work with them," Stevenson says, doing “what can we do to help them so this doesn't happen again.”
Alcohol violations decline as well
In the 2010-2011 school year, a total of 18 alcohol violations were reported in district schools – five at Centennial Middle School, two at Columbine, eight at Montrose High school and three at Olathe High School.
The next school year, that number decreased slightly, with six violations reported at Johnson Elementary School, one at Columbine, nine at Montrose High School and two at Olathe High School.
Data collected in 2012-2013 show just four violations were reported district-wide. The report does not detail which schools reported the violations.
Booth says the decline is thanks in part to reporting, from students and teachers, of students who appear to be under in the influence of alcohol.
"We have them coming in with alcohol in water bottles," Booth says. "The district may say we are the biggest reason there is a decline. I believe it’s the teachers and administrators. Their help, helps us do our job more effectively.”
On Jan, 1, Colorado and Washington become the first states in the nation to permit the use of marijuana recreationally.
Although marijuana will be "regulated" like alcohol, meaning no person under the age of 21 will be legally allowed to carry it, the new law presents a new challenge for school resource officers here in their efforts to keep the drug away from schools.
"I think it'll be more available for kids to find; either they'll get into their parent's or older siblings’ stash. It'll be more readily available, like alcohol," says Beery.
Marijuana is an emerging multimillion dollar a year industry, with edible marijuana available in the form of candy, cookies, THC-infused drinks and even ice cream. Also ubiquitous are the portable pot vaporizers called "vapes," which are drawing concern from critics who say that these relatively inconspicuous devices just add to the risk of legalized pot falling into the hands of minors.
Montrose officers said the new products will make it easier for students to possess marijuana illegally, and possibly easier to bring marijuana to school, as well. But even if the marijuana is commercialized into new forms, the ability to search the schools will remain the same, says Saunders.
"If it’s marijuana-infused, or made with marijuana,” he says, Oxx “will still be able to find it.”
Since the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012, Colorado has been working to put in place infrastructure regarding the regulation of marijuana sales, as well as enforcement.
Last May, the City of Montrose was one of the first municipalities in Colorado to ban the retail sale of marijuana within city limits, citing public safety. Sanders says he is beginning to see a rise in the number of people driving under the influence of drugs, or DUID.
Other law enforcement officials have said they will follow state law when it pertains to marijuana, and not arrest those who are 21-and-over who possess up to one ounce of it, although it remains illegal under federal law.