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    Largo Middle won't get drug dog after all

    Despite support from the school and residents, Largo officials quashed the idea.

    By SHARON TUBBS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


    LARGO -- It was supposed to work like this: Largo Middle School would raise $3,500 to buy and train a full-time drug dog for its campus. The city then would allow its school resource officer to be the designated handler.

    The plan was going smoothly. Do-gooders donated about $400 before fundraising efforts ever began. Parents called to voice their support.

    Then, last week, something strange happened.

    After backing the idea for nearly a year, city officials changed their minds in an abrupt turn of events that left the school and parents wondering what or who was to blame.

    Now, there will be no drug-sniffing canine exclusively for Largo Middle -- at least not soon.

    When he heard the news, principal Bill Cooper said, "It kind of took me back a little bit."

    The drug-sniffing dog idea had been a big hit, sparking the kind of school spirit Cooper hadn't seen in a long time. "We just received such good response from parents; it's amazing," he said.

    For one, former Little League coach Alex Dussault donated $100 toward the effort, and he doesn't even have kids at Largo Middle. Stopping drug abuse at the school would benefit the surrounding community, Dussault said.

    Then there was Sandy Meyers, grandmother of two middle schoolers. She planned to sell chocolate bars to raise money for the dog's training. She had been pumping up the benefits of having a drug dog since she saw a drug deal go down outside the school last year.

    Not that Largo Middle has a big drug problem. Last school year, there were two drug-related arrests there, which is a lot fewer than some other Pinellas schools.

    Still, school resource officer Paula Crosby said, even two is too many.

    Some time ago, Crosby learned of another Florida school that had a full-time drug dog. The same concept could work at Largo Middle, she thought. The dog would follow her throughout the corridors -- a constant deterrent for students who might otherwise bring drugs to school.

    To offset the use of city dollars, the $3,500 could be raised privately through fundraisers, Crosby decided. She got a local vet to promise free medical services. Money from periodic car washes would pay for food and other future maintenance, Crosby said.

    "We thought we had just covered all the bases," she said.

    Cooper agreed to the concept and envisioned a cuddly, multipurpose dog: drug-sniffer/school mascot. Crosby's bosses blessed the idea, praising her commitment. And the ball was set in motion as people like Dussault and Meyers began giving their money and time.

    Then, City Manager Steven Stanton got wind of what was going on. Crosby had been working on the project since last year, but only recently did the information reach City Hall's highest chair.

    Stanton was concerned that the city might be responsible for unforeseen future expenses. Largo already donates $40,000 a year to Largo Middle and Largo High schools to help fund in-school suspension programs, Stanton noted.

    "Is this the appropriate thing to do?" Stanton said he asked police administrators during a meeting last week.

    Some time later, Cooper got the call from Lt. Carla Boudrot who told him the drug dog was off. He was too stunned at the time to ask why, but he plans to have a talk with city officials.

    "It's not that we're trying to make waves," Cooper said. "I just wonder what was such a big obstacle that we couldn't overcome," he said later.

    Meyers also got the courtesy call from Boudrot. Meyers said she wasn't offered an explanation and guessed somebody in City Hall had shot down the idea.

    Stanton?

    No, he is not to blame, Stanton said.

    After talking with a reporter, Stanton called police officials who then called the reporter back. If names had to be named in the killing of the drug dog idea, Boudrot said, it should be Capt. John Carroll -- definitely not Stanton.

    Carroll reasoned that police struggled to write an appropriate contract between Largo and the school. That's why he killed the program, he said. "It just gets cumbersome."

    As sort of a compromise, the city will use a drug dog it already owns for periodic sniffing at public and private schools in Largo. The dog will also be used to ride with a patrol officer on the street and for drug demonstrations. This way, the dog will be used throughout the community, not just at one school, police said.

    The chosen dog, a Labrador named Reece, has a barking problem, though. The city has sent him to a three-week training camp in Fort Myers where he is expected to become a more socialable drug-sniffing canine able to interact well with students. Reece, however, will not be used as a mascot for Largo Middle.

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