February 16. 2013 11:48PM

Police say 'sophisticated' school drugs rings not widespread in NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

Police in the state's two largest cities say they see no evidence of schoolyard drug rings as sophisticated as the one uncovered at Portsmouth High School two weeks ago, but are under no illusions that drugs aren't being bought and sold by students.

"I'd be a fool if I said drugs weren't being used here," said Nashua Police Lt. Frank Sullivan. "But something like what I've heard about the operation in Portsmouth, we've seen no evidence of that in Nashua. I like to think the partnerships we developed with school officials and students would alert us if there was one."

Two Portsmouth brothers, ages 15 and 16, were arrested by police, suspected of operating a large drug sales operation for high school students. It allegedly included international drug shipments and money laundering, said Portsmouth police.

The siblings were arrested after a police raid at the Portsmouth apartment where they live with their mother.

Police said they confiscated methamphetamine, heroin and ketamine, along with bath salts, hashish and marijuana - drugs they believe were sold to other students attending Portsmouth High School.

Police said they also found hypodermic needles, scales, small plastic bags, cellphones, laptops and knives.

"We have not seen teens running anything on that scale in the city that I can remember, and I've been here 17 years," said Manchester Sgt. Brian LaValle, of the city's Special Investigations Unit.

"Our team has very good relationships with students and administrators in the city's schools," said Lt. Ron Mello, who oversees the Juvenile Division of the Manchester Police Department, including a team of eight school resource officers. "You can never be sure, especially with the operation they broke up in Portsmouth, but I think we would hear about that from our contacts here."

Portsmouth Police Capt. Mike Schwartz, who oversees the city's school resource officer program, says the program has been reduced from three officers four years ago to one, covering five schools in the city.

"He works to stay connected in the schools, but he's spread a little thin," said Schwartz.

Schwarz said his department is continuing its investigation into whether the two teens were assisted by adults in running the ring.

He would not comment on whether there was evidence that drugs were sold on school grounds, whether more arrests may occur, or whether the resource officer alerted authorities to the presence of the alleged drug ring.

"As this is an ongoing investigation, I can't comment any further on those efforts," said Schwarz.

A proposal to add a second school resource officer to cover Portsmouth elementary schools has been discussed during budget sessions.

"It won't get us back to where we were, but it's a good step," said Schwarz.

Both the Nashua and Manchester school districts conduct random sweeps of student lockers and common areas inside school buildings as a way to deter drug sales and use by students. Schwarz said Portsmouth conducted similar sweeps in the past, but they were dropped due to funding cuts.

Drug sweeps at some New Hampshire high schools have prompted protests from parents who complained about perceived violations of their children's Fourth Amendment rights, including an unsuccessful 2007 lawsuit brought against ConVal Regional High School by parents.

Franklin cited reasons why the sweeps are legal, saying a sweep using dogs is not considered a search under the Fourth Amendment.

An "alert" received from a drug-sniffing dog gives police and school officials reasonable suspicion to search a student's property, and that no warrant is needed by school officials to conduct the search.

School administrators are told of the sweeps a week or more in advance, and school principals often accompany the police and the dogs through a school building.

Teachers are told the day of the sweep, typically in an alert message sent to a school email account, and keep students in classes while it is under way. Parents are alerted as well, via an automated phone message.

The Nashua School District adopted a policy in 2004 requiring all students to have doctor's orders and parental consent before they can receive any type of medication in school.

Lt. Sullivan said students caught with any medication - without a prescription - can be charged with a felony. Officers call the students' parents to determine whether they have a prescription.

What happens after a student is caught with drugs varies between districts. Some districts work with a student who has committed an infraction to get them connected with further resources; other schools have a mandatory 10-day suspension, with no exceptions. Consequences vary based on whether the infraction is a first offense, second offense, or made by a chronic offender. Consequences for athletes may be different.

Portsmouth School Superintendent Edward McDonough confirmed last week that disciplinary procedures against the teen brothers charged in the alleged ring have begun. The process includes a referral to the school board for a disciplinary hearing.

"We are following the process as outlined," McDonough said. "Unfortunately, the school administration cannot provide any detail on student disciplinary matters which, by law, are confidential."

According to data provided by the state's Department of Education, in the 2007-08 school year (the last year for which statistics were available), 806 students in New Hampshire received suspensions from school for drug use, 342 of those where in Hillsborough County. There were 16 students expelled for drug possession that year.

Results from the state's 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Study (YRBS), the most recent year the survey was administered, showed 23.1 percent of New Hampshire high school students who participated in the survey said they had been offered, had purchased, or had been given an illegal drug on school property during the previous year. Survey results showed that one in five high school students in New Hampshire, or 20.8 percent, claim to have taken a prescription drug at least once without a prescription. The drugs included OxyContin, Xanax and Ritalin.

Sullivan said in Nashua, from September 2010 to the present, 46 high school students have been arrested on drug possession charges. Of those, 31 arrests were for marijuana possession, while 15 involved prescription drugs. This school year, there have been nine arrests - eight on marijuana charges and one for prescription pills.

Lt. Sullivan said the school resource officers he oversees in Nashua have reported an overall increase in the use of prescription pills over the past two years, but that much of the drug activity happens off school property.

The last sweep using drug-sniffing dogs conducted in Nashua took place in September. Two teams of four dogs simultaneously sniffed out lockers and common areas in both Nashua high schools. Each team took about 30 minutes to go through the schools. No drugs were detected.

Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas said his department assists in sweeps in that community about once a year. He believes the sweeps are a worthwhile activity.

Thomas said in 2011, 28 youths aged 11 to 17 were arrested on drug possession charges. That number went to 46 in 2012. From ages 18 to 24, the numbers went from 28 arrests in 2011 to 38 in 2012.

Lt. Ron Mello oversees the Juvenile Division of the Manchester Police Department, including a team of eight school resource officers. He said his department also conducts random, unannounced sweeps of city schools with drug-sniffing dogs. Mello said his department typically conducts two sweeps a year.

According to figures provided by Manchester police, there were 60 youths ages 18 and under arrested for drug possession in the Queen City in 2011. The number dropped to 55 in 2012.

Salem also conducts sweeps, usually twice a year, according to Superintendent Michael Delahanty.

"It's to let the students who are bringing drugs to school, if there are any, to know that it's not going to be tolerated," said Delahanty.

Sullivan said he felt the fact that no drugs were found at the schools was a good indicator of the success of his school resource officer program, showing the work school officials and school resource officers are doing is having a positive effect in preventing drug use.