GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio - Oak Hills High School will be the first school in southwest Ohio with a full-time safety dog trained to sniff out drugs and guns, district superintendent Todd Yohey said.
Once classes start at the Green Township school next Wednesday, a 7½-month-old, 60-pound Dutch Shepherd named Atticus will walk the halls every day on a leash with one of two security personnel. At night, Atticus will go home with principal John Stoddard.
“The use of a school safety dog will greatly enhance our ability to keep drugs and weapons out,” Yohey said. “Reality is that drug use has increased in our community and we are determined to keep drugs out of our schools.”
Atticus also provides “an extra level of protection against an active shooter,” Yohey said, since the dog is trained to attack on his handlers’ command.
The idea came from an Oak Hills parent, Mark Gomer, who has been training dogs for more than 20 years. Gomer opened American Success Dog Training in Bridgetown a year and a half ago. He has children in middle schools in the Oak Hills district.
See a video clip of Atticus below or at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151412119995213&set=vb.301517393272659&type=2&theater
Gomer pitched it to district officials after the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut last December. Gomer said his main goal is “to protect Oak Hills’ students and be an example for other schools to follow.”
“He researched it and couldn’t find any other district anywhere with a full-time safety dog,” Yohey said.
”The use of police dogs has already been proven as a deterrent to crime,” Gomer said. “We are molding that training to fit a school situation.”
Yohey admitted he wasn’t a believer at first.
“I will tell you initially I wasn’t very interested,” Yohey said. “I didn’t know of it being done anywhere and I didn’t know what people would think about us spending money on a dog.
“But the more I talked with other superintendents and the more we talked internally about it, I started to see it as a real deterrent to people bringing drugs and firearms into the high school.”
Parents are overwhelmingly in favor, Yohey said.
“The reaction from parents has been very, very positive,” Yohey said. “I’ve received a lot of comments and there have been a great many social media posts about Atticus. There were two questions about what we’d do about students who are afraid of dogs, but they didn’t realize Atticus would be on a leash with handlers. And that’s compared to hundreds of comments from people who are glad we are doing it.”
Yohey said school officials have already tested to make sure Atticus would fit in with students and staff in Oak Hills’ busy, crowded hallways.
“During the last two or three months of the (past) school year, we had Atticus visit the high school several times. We wanted to see the reaction of the students to Atticus and we wanted to see how Atticus behaved. The interactions were all very positive. He passed with flying colors,” Yohey said.
Gomer, who has trained more than 8,000 dogs, said Atticus has been trained to be friendly with students and staff and has been taught obedience and control.
When Atticus sniffs drugs or guns, he responds passively and stays at the location. He won’t take commands from anyone but his handlers.
“He’s a very friendly, playful dog,” Yohey said. “When you approach him, he wants to play.”
Asked what school officials would do if students constantly wanted to pet or play with Atticus, Yohey said the handlers would have to control those interactions.
And what if students want to feed Atticus?
“As far as that goes, I’d remind the students that Atticus is an employee and he’s there to work. His diet is controlled. We don’t want him getting sick or fat,” he said.
Stoddard volunteered to house Atticus, and the dog is already living at the principal’s home, Yohey said.
“John realized the value of having Atticus at school,” Yohey said. “We had other living arrangements that were options, but once John volunteered, we knew that was our best arrangement.
“As John likes to say, he’s Atticus’ ride to and from work.”
Oak Hills paid $10,000 to have Atticus for two years, Yohey said, and he called it money well spent.
“That’s the total cost for Atticus, his training and the partnership with Mr. Gomer,” Yohey said. “We pay $5,000 this fiscal year and $5,000 the next.”
Atticus will patrol parking lots at the high school as well and occasionally visit other schools in the district.
Oak Hills added more security measures over the summer, Yohey said.
“We installed camera and buzzer systems at all of our school buildings, so anyone visiting has to be buzzed in by the receptionist after being identified,” Yohey said. “And we went from keyed entry to keyless entry with fingerprints” for teachers and staff.