PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth High School Principal Joseph Amaral said his decision to have police and K-9 units periodically sweep the school for drugs was based primarily on concerns that some students are using the school as a “distribution center.”
In an e-mail sent to parents Friday afternoon, Mr. Amaral, citing the “proliferation of illegal substances, such as marijuana and other controlled substances among young people,” said the sweeps will ensure that no illegal drugs are found on campus.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Amaral was asked if a specific incident had prompted the call for periodic drug sweeps, which haven’t been seen at PHS in many years.
“I can’t share too much, but I can tell you that: One, there seems to be more access to marijuana than there has been in the past; and two, it’s really to support the majority of students who come to school drug-free,” he said.
Those students, he said, shouldn’t fear coming to school and watching classmates use or sell drugs. “We want to make sure the school does not become a marketplace for the selling or distributing of illegal drugs. We must provide a safe environment for all our students,” Mr. Amaral said.
In his message to parents, the principal said trained K-9 units will be used for “periodic searches throughout the remainder of the school year.” The dogs will not engage with students, he added.
Mr. Amaral said no sweeps had yet been carried out as of Tuesday. The decision to do so depends on the circumstances, he said. “We’re hoping to try our very first one and determine how that exercise works and how effective it was. Then we’ll use our judgement going forward,” he said.
The Middletown school district has carried out similar sweeps for at least two years, said Mr. Amaral, who couldn’t recall the last time Portsmouth ordered them.
“To my understanding, I don’t think it’s happened before,” he said, noting that his predecessor, Robert Littlefield, did not order any drug sweeps in the 18 years he served as PHS principal. (Mr. Amaral was appointed to succeed Mr. Littlefield in July 2016.)
Ray Davis, coordinator of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, applauded the principal’s “proactive” decision.
“First of all, there shouldn’t be any drugs in the school,” Mr. Davis said. “Portsmouth is no better or worse in this area. But this is one tool to make sure there aren’t any. I take my hat off to him for tackling the problem head on instead of trying to duck it. It sends a very clear message that this is not permitted.”
Both he and Mr. Amaral also stressed that sweeping for drugs is hardly the only tool the district is using to battle substance abuse among students.
“This is just one piece of a comprehensive plan to really try to do something in Portsmouth around substance abuse prevention. I really commend Mr. Amaral. He’s trying to do some things to help kids, not to jam them up,” Mr. Davis said. He notes the various programs the school has hosted, including a recent visit by parolees and officers who spoke with freshmen and sophomores about deviant behavior, violence and substance abuse.
Mr. Amaral said the school supports and works closely with families of students who are afflicted by drug use. “We know how difficult it is for kids who fall into that trap,” he said.
In his e-mail, the principal urged parents with concerns about their children to contact the school’s student assistance counselor, Kelly O’Loughlin, for additional support options. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
One PHS parent with concerns about the police sweeps is local journalist and blogger John McDaid.
On this blog, Hard Deadlines, Mr. McDaid expressed reservations about the decision to have police and K-9 units sweep the school for drugs.
“While the goal of maintaining a drug-free school may be laudable, I have concerns about turning our educational institution into a space patrolled by multiple police forces and K-9 units,” Mr McDaid wrote on the blog, where he posted the principal’s e-mail shortly after it was sent out.
“It seems disruptive and not conducive to the environment of collaboration and trust that our Portsmouth PD had worked so hard to achieve. I can accept the notion of a school resource officer, but this feels like it goes way beyond that,” Mr. McDaid stated.
The Rhode island ACLU has also responded to Mr. Amaral's decision. Read about that here.
Mr. Amaral, however, said the school “has exhausted every educational avenue that it can take” and that administrators feel some students are taking advantage of the recent proliferation of marijuana and other illegal drugs and using it as an “entrepreneurial experience.”
Mr. Davis agreed.
“It’s supply and demand. The growing laws are ridiculous. There is so much pot around (and) kids aren’t stupid. That’s how they pay for their own pot,” he said, adding that cracking down will make sure “that that culture doesn’t get developed into more than it should. One thing feeds another.”
While parents have come down on both sides of the issue, Mr. Davis said there’s been strong support for the drug sweeps for some time. “I’ve gotten that feedback for many years,” he said.
There are other illegal drugs floating around, including opiates, but marijuana would be the primary target of the drug sweeps, he said.
“(Today’s) marijuana is powerful stuff. It’s not the 2-3 percent THC stuff that was around in my old hippie days. This is a whole other animal,” Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Amaral concurred.
“It’s extremely potent,” he said. “This is not your granddad’s marijuana from the ’70s.”