CORBIN CITY — For the past five years, Joe Nick has been working out a way to save the lives of school children who are threatened by an active shooter.
Nick, the training director at Atlantic County’s John “Sonny” Burke Police K-9 Academy, has taught police dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs and subdue suspects, but his focus has widened to include training school dogs to smell ammo, guns and to engage a shooter.
“All I want to do is give another layer of security,” Nick said, who recently placed South Jersey’s first school dog, Meadow, at Cumberland County Technical Education Center in Vineland. “A dog will always continue to engage.”
In 2016 and 2017, out of the 50 active shooter incidents across the U.S., seven happened in schools. In those seven incidents, five were killed and 19 wounded, according to an FBI study.
For years, legislators and advocates have grappled to find solutions for schools, including increasing security, creating stricter gun laws and even arming teachers.
Are school dogs a viable option? As with many of the ideas proposed, reactions are mixed.
There is no evidence to suggest a school dog would work, according to Daniel Semenza, assistant professor at Rutgers-Camden’s Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice departments.
“The problem is, especially after these awful things happen, schools rush very quickly to put measures in place where there’s not any evidence to suggest that it does anything and it works,” Semenza said.
But for at least one of the parents of a school shooting victim, the dogs are a step in the right direction. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was one of the 17 victims of the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, said the school dog named in his daughter’s memory will save lives.
“The beauty of it is, you’ll never know how many lives this dog will save because it’s such a deterrent,” Pollack said at the school dog’s graduation this month. “Most of the people who do these school shootings are cowards and don’t want to go anywhere they’ll be bit.”
Since Meadow’s graduation, Nick has been getting calls from California, New York and Michigan, all inquiring about the school dogs, he said. Some are for schools, but others are for churches and private businesses — anywhere with large groups of people.
Semenza said there isn’t even a lot of evidence that shows that armed school resource officers and metal detectors work. The “gold standard” would be to measure reports of violence and threats over time at two school locations, one with the dog and one without.
Nick explained he’s completed 72 drills at the training center, using balloons to simulate potential victims and a “shooter” armed with a paintball gun, he said. Each time the dog was introduced, the number of balloons hit by the shooter was decreased dramatically.
But there are also the students to consider, Semenza said, and the type of environment a school could become.
“What will allow us to strike a balance to keep the children safe in school but also not turning the school grounds into a criminalized place?” Semenza asked, noting that Meadow joins a security force of 14 armed retired law-enforcement officers. “There can be downsides to having a high school environment where it doesn’t feel like a place of education, but a place that’s being guarded, which I think can change it for a lot of students.”
But school dogs are different than the law enforcement K-9s, Nick said, and a school dog adds a layer of protection “without fighting about guns.”
“The difference is the police dog has to be trained in multiple fashions and has to be used in multiple places,” Nick explained. “A school dog is trained in three facets: obedience, the nose to locate guns and ammo, and the other is to engage an active shooter.”
Students at the school have been taught to treat Meadow as if she’s working, not as a pet.
“No one pets her,” Nick said. “She looks like a mascot, but Meadow is there to protect them.”
A school dog also has the potential to save districts money they would otherwise spend on a salaried resource officer, Nick said. School dogs cost much less to train and last longer than the average police K-9, which work until they’re about 8 or 9 years old and cost between $50,000 and $75,000, he added.
While he doesn’t have an exact cost just yet, as he was able to get Meadow and her training donated to the Vineland school, he said it will be “significantly cheaper” than a K-9 and will probably work until she’s 10 or 11.
“I want everybody to understand it’s better to have and not need than need and not have,” Nick said. “Maybe we’ll never use it, but if it is where my school and my child (are), I would want it.”