NEWBURYPORT — In reaction to an increase in illegal drug issues, Newburyport High School was locked down for about 30 minutes yesterday morning as local and regional law enforcement officials searched student backpacks for drugs.
The unannounced sweep, conducted by the local police with assistance by K-9 units from the Essex County Sheriff's Department and Amesbury police, resulted in no drugs being found and no arrests, according to Assistant Superintendent Deirdre Farrell.
"It's very good news. It's the best possible outcome," Farrell said.
Farrell said students were taken out of their classrooms around 10 a.m. and ordered to leave their backpacks and bags in the hallway. After students returned to their classrooms to continue their studies, multiple K-9 units searched their belongings. It took the K-9 units about 18 minutes to search all items and then leave the building.
Farrell said all of the high school's roughly 700 students complied with the search. Staff were not targeted as part of the sweep.
"Students were just great during the entire process. They were respectful and are to be commended for their cooperation," Farrell said.
Asked if the school department would be conducting similar sweeps in the near or far future, Farrell said she couldn't comment.
When asked to talk about the police department's role in the sweep, Newburyport police Lt. Rick Siemasko said all questions were being referred to the school superintendent's office.
Planning for the sweep began several weeks ago and was conducted due to what school administrators called an increase in drug-related situations at the high school. Farrell added that the results of a recently released survey of NHS students that showed an increase in drug use played a part in the administration's decision.
According to the survey, about a third of the high school's students said they used marijuana. At a March public meeting, Superintendent Marc Kerble noted that the number of expulsion hearings at Newburyport High had risen from three in the 2010-11 school year to 11 as of early March. Of the 11 new hearings, 10 have involved use, possession or consumption of marijuana on school property. Four hearings resulted in the expulsion of the student from the district.
The last time a sweep of this nature took place at the high school was Dec. 17, 2009, and it served as the basis for yesterday's action.
"We embrace the responsibility we have for student well-being as we focus on academic achievement for all students. The action taken today should reinforce an understanding of that level of commitment," Kerble said in a statement.
School officials have made it known that the state's decision to decriminalize marijuana also played a role in the school's decision to beef up its drug prevention measures. Possession of less than an ounce is treated as a civil penalty, with a $100 fine.
"Kids think it's legal," Farrell said.
City councilors have been considering a measure that would increase the fine to $300, largely to deter youth use of marijuana.
At-large Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr., who said he mentioned the idea of a drug sweep during a joint education meeting last month, praised the school department's action but questioned its results.
"I'm glad they're clean as a whistle, but I find it a little hard to believe (that no marijuana was found) after all the stories I've heard from parents," Sullivan said, adding that several parents have told him stories of students openly smoking marijuana at the school.
Sullivan is a first-term city councilor and previously served four years on the city's School Committee.
Farrell said that while there were no drugs found during the search, there were five bags that received what Farrell called "hits" from the K-9 units.
"But nothing was found," Farrell said.