The New Canaan Police Department’s newly deployed K-9 unit swept through New Canaan High School’s hallways Wednesday morning, sniffing lockers during a demonstration and training exercise that could yield a more regular effort to use the drug-sniffing dog to combat substance abuse among local youth.
Apollo, a German shepherd dog that since completing training in July has worked throughout town with NCPD Officer David Rivera—making his public debut at the Family Fourth at Waveny and already helping police with drug arrests in town—spent more than one hour sniffing lockers up and down NCHS hallways.
The keenly sensitive, drug-sniffing dog successfully detected marijuana and heroin planted by NCPD officers during a tightly controlled test, and is able additionally to detect crack-cocaine and cocaine, among other drugs, Rivera said.
“Once he tells me he is entirely sure, that’s when I am good with it,” Rivera said during the session, as a leashed Apollo in sweeping the lockers throughout the hallways stopped and lay down in front of those where School Resource Officer Jason Kim had planted the drugs as a test. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi, Police Chief Leon Krolikowski and NCHS Principal Bill Egan followed Rivera and Kim through the school.
In the last couple of years in New Canaan (and elsewhere), officials have seen a dramatic uptick in the number of young people using heroin, Krolikowski said.
“Thankfully we have not had any heroin deaths in New Canaan, but we have had former New Canaanites overdose in other communities,” Krolikowski said. “And that is a huge concern for us. So this is just a small part of a comprehensive plan we are putting together to address substance abuse in our community. Enforcement is one part of it and education is the other, and I don’t know how anyone can argue with ensuring that our schools are as safe as possible.”
A problem that local experts from Silver Hill Hospital says typically starts at home with kids taking their parents’ opioid-based painkillers from a medicine cabinet, heroin abuse made headlines in town recently when a Town Councilman noted that the town in recent years has lost six young people to overdoses.
First Selectman Rob Mallozzi said a larger, coordinated community-wide effort launched around February when he and Town Councilman Penny Young focused on how New Canaan might ensure a drug-free school environment.
“We thought why don’t we start there and lay down the law that our schools, at a minimum, should be drug-free,” Mallozzi said. “And to the chief’s credit, he ran with it and he and Bryan have been working together. This is evidenced today by what happened. I don’t think what they are there to do is bust the kids so much but to say that we are going to be here once in a while and if we find anything, we will let the schools know that there is a problem and the schools will handle it.”
It would be irresponsible for town officials to close their eyes to the problem, Mallozzi said, “because it’s there.”
“We are not losing kids in our high school, per se, but we are losing kids three or four years out of high school, if you look at it, it is the 21- to 25-year-olds,” he said.
Luizzi said Apollo’s presence in the school during the exercise on Wednesday marked the first time a K-9 dog entered the facility for this purpose.
“In speaking with the chief, we thought it would be a good idea for the dog to come by prior to school,” Luizzi said.
Asked whether the exercise could signal a program where future, unannounced sweeps by the K-9 unit are possible, Luizzi said: “The Board of Ed is looking at their policies around that because anything we do in that regard would be driven by Board of Ed policy. So we are reviewing the policy. Certainly, we are committed to doing whatever we need to do to ensure that our schools are drug-free, and if this is another step we can take, then we are interested in pursuing it.”
The town’s wider effort sees officials from the New Canaan Department of Health and Human Services, as well as experts from groups such as New Canaan CARES, Silver Hill Hospital and the Ram Council, meet once per month and notify each other when seminars and events focused on drug-free conversation are planned, Mallozzi said.
One major barrier, experts say, to New Canaan as a community addressing the problem of heroin use, is a stigma attached to those who use opioids and then become addicted to the drug.
Mallozzi noted that progress has been made in this regard, as evidenced by heartbroken parents who still manage to note in obituaries that their children, lost to heroin use, found the strength to try and fight their addictions.
“We are trying to take the stigma away from being part of the conversation, and I thought it would be helpful if the first selectman was part of that conversation,” he said.
Police Chief Leon Krolikowski noted that New Canaan Police have an anonymous tip line at 203-594-3544, and encourages anyone with tips regarding drug distribution and use, including heroin, to use it.