NJ.com: Ocean County Prosecutor to send drug-sniffing dogs into schools to search for heroin


ith the number of heroin and opioid overdose deaths continuing to surge in Ocean County, drug-sniffing dogs will begin to search county schools for narcotics next month, according to the prosecutor's office. (Star-Ledger file photo)
James Queally/The Star-LedgerBy James Queally/The Star-Ledger 
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on September 09, 2013 at 12:26 PM, updated September 09, 2013 at 8:14 PM

TOMS RIVER — Ocean County’s prosecutor will send drug-sniffing dogs into high schools and middle schools next month to combat the surge in heroin and prescription painkiller abuse that has rocked the region.

The move is part of Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato’s sprawling back-to-school effort to curb drug use among teenagers who often start out abusing marijuana and prescription painkillers then graduate to a heroin habit.

"This group has exploded, and once somebody is in their 20s, I can’t really reach out for them," Coronato said today. "But I can certainly reach out to them while they’re in high school."

There have been 87 fatal drug overdoses in Ocean County this year, compared to 53 in all of 2012. Most victims were in their late teens and early 20s, and died from an overdose of heroin, painkillers or a lethal cocktail of both.

Ocean County’s staggering death toll is part of a larger heroin epidemic that has gripped the state over the past few years. The number of heroin-related deaths in New Jersey jumped by 28 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the most recent data available. The number of people between the ages of 18 and 25 seeking treatment for opiate addiction rose by 12 percent in the same time frame.

The school searches will begin in October, after assistant prosecutors host a series of drug seminars at each school, Coronato said.

"Because of all the legal issues, I think people have stayed away from it in the past," Coronato said of bringing dogs into the schools. "But my opinion is I have an epidemic. I need to reach out to this age group, and educate them."

Coronato will only go into schools that agree to allow his investigators access to their facilities, but the prosecutor said he already has the support of district leaders.

Frank Belluscio, director of the state School Boards Association, said while the idea of using dogs to locate drugs in schools is "nothing new," announcing the plan could make students think twice.

"Obviously if the students known at a certain time that police might be sweeping through the school buildings with dogs sniffing out lockers it would definitely be a deterrent against having any kind of controlled dangerous substances inside the school building," he said.

While he conceded some parents may take issue with the tactics, Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said it’s important to stymie drug use among younger residents.

"Regardless of what the project is, you always find people that are for and against these things," Akers said. "But as far as my personal feeling, I applaud the prosecutor’s office for trying to get ahead of it and educate people. Even if it saves one life, that’s huge."