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Fountain Middle School patrolled by a playful, marijuana-sniffing police dog

October 14, 2017 Updated: October 14, 2017 at 10:07 pm
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Corporal Matt Sanchez points high on a locker for Amp to search at Fountain Middle School in Fountain on Tuesda. Sanchez and Amp search the gym locker room frequently because it is one of the least disruptive places they can search. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker)

The most popular staff member at Fountain Middle School slobbers, sheds and shakes with the sheer anticipation of doing her job.

Meet Amp, the only police dog who works full time for a Colorado public school district.

Kids in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 can't get enough of Amp, named for her amplified personality that comes through loud and clear.

"You can see how famous she is," said Cpl. Matt Sanchez, a D-8 school resource officer and Amp's handler.

Middle school students swarm around the nearly 5-year-old Amp whenever she appears in the gym, hallways, outside and at activities.

"Everybody loves Amp, and she loves us," says 12-year-old Bryce Owen, a seventh grader at Fountain Middle School, where Amp is assigned this school year. "She's very playful, nice and caring. She's an all-around great dog."

Alyssa McEwen and Haylee Hicks, students at Fountain Middle School, pet Amp after gym in Fountain on Tuesday. Amp is trained for searches, not apprehension, so she is good with kids. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker) 

But being petted and fetching her favorite chew toy are the highly skilled German shepherd's ancillary duties. Her primary tasks are to root out drugs and weapons, keep kids safe and prevent students from making bad choices.

"As the state moved toward recreational marijuana, we felt it was important to do everything we could to keep drugs out of schools," said Montina Romero, D-8's assistant superintendent for support services, including safety and security.

Amp is definitely a deterrent, said Corrie Walker, the middle school's assistant principal.

"Students know Amp is around - she's visible - and part of our commitment to have a safe school," he said. "I think every school has an issue with drugs - we're not unique."

Expulsion hearings and disciplinary infractions related to drugs have decreased in recent years, Romero said.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the first year retail marijuana was legal in Colorado, the district's expulsion hearings stemming from drug-related offenses reached a high of 42, which accounted for 69 percent of all district expulsion hearings.

Through May of this year, there have been six drug-related offenses, accounting for 30 percent of all expulsion hearings.

Romero attributes the improvement to prevention and education efforts and an intentional shift away from punitive disciplinary action for drug-related offenses to an approach that emphasizes treatment and continued enrollment.

Amp sits in the hallway at Fountain Middle School in Fountain on Tuesday . (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker) 

Amp's arrival in the school district - part time in 2015 and full time in August 2016 - was a case of the stars aligning.

Amp came from a kennel in Germany, having been born to parents who were bred as working dogs, Sanchez said. An anonymous donor bought her and gave her to the Fountain Police Department. She worked for two years on the streets, as part of the K-9 Unit.

"She's highly driven," Sanchez said. "Narcotics, people and article searches are up her alley."

Through a partnership with D-8, Amp became a district employee last year. She gets a paycheck - or rather, Sanchez gets extra money to cover her food and care. D-8 also pays the Fountain Police Department for her use.

She also has a business/baseball card with her photo on the front and career information on the back, including the motto: "Nothing is im"PAW"sible!"

Amp was assigned to the high school last year, and the middle school this year. But she routinely makes the rounds to all D-8 schools to check in and around and buildings.

"We try not to be predictable in our searches," Sanchez said.

The district has moved away from the specific anti-drug DARE program to a broader system that builds drug awareness starting as early as kindergarten, Romero said.

Amp also attends sporting events, such as football games and tailgate parties, as well as community events, such as the Labor Day festival.

Amp searches for keys outside the Dean Fleischauer gymnasium at Fountain Middle School in on Tuesda. Amp does practice and demonstration searches regularly to maintain her training. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker) 

Amp is a nationally certified narcotics detection dog and can identify marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and psilocybin mushrooms. She still works with Fountain patrol officers when she's not at schools and has found all of those drugs on the streets, Sanchez said. Marijuana is the only drug she's uncovered in D-8 schools, he said.

"Finds in the schools are very rare," he said.

While she's good at her job - she took fifth place out of 20 dogs from around the state who competed in a recent national K-9 contest - Sanchez explains that Amp is not trained to "attack and bite" but to "find and play."

So kids aren't intimidated by her good nature.

"I let them know she's all about butterflies and rainbows," Sanchez said.

Amp responds to commands in German, English and sign language.

When searching for contraband or other articles, Amp looks for something that's out of order, Sanchez says, demonstrating how she can locate a ring of keys that he randomly tossed into a grassy field.

"She's able to detect surrounding odors and can smell something different," he said.

When Amp has found something, she lays on it.

"When you're just bringing a dog in for a search, you're reacting," Romero said. "Having Amp in the school full time is prevention."

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