Drug scare in a small town
Residents in Colfax are up in arms over
rampant drug use in school.
One problem: There's no evidence the school even has a drug problem.
BY JENNIFER WILSON
Colfax has seen better days. The town was once a haven for coal
miners and international travelers seeking renewal in the town's pristine mineral springs.
These days, there is little entertainment save a bowling alley. The varsity
football season was canceled due to lack of participation. The addition of a few new
antique shops and the revival of the mineral springs has proved tepid.
But in the past year, the town has found a common rallying point in drug prevention. What was once a one-man police department has now expanded to four full-time officers and one part-timer. The town Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) committee is growing with each meeting. After the holidays, Colfax may take a big city stance with a drug-sniffing dog operation at the high school.
In September, Kathleen Goodman, a substitute teacher, and her husband Don sent a letter to the Jasper County Tribune. The letter, a plea for the town to unite under God and drug-free living, quoted one teacher who estimated that 80 percent of the older students used drugs. "80%!" said the letter. "If this teacher is only half right, we have a monstrous problem!"
The letter, based largely on speculation and rumor, rankled some and frightened others. November's SAFE meeting produced a crowd of 70. "It was a huge turnout," says Sue Hagarty, the program's coordinator. "As a matter of fact, I haven't seen 70 people gather in Colfax for anything other than church services."
But despite the public fretting, the town seems to agree that school isn't teeming with drugs. Dogs would be merely a preventative measure.
"I don't think one school has any more problems than any other school. We're just trying to deal with them," says Colfax-Mingo superintendent Bonnie Baum. "The idea is to prevent big problems from happening."
Hagarty attributes some of the concern to an assessment filled out anonymously by students, indicating they were using more than just alcohol. "A handful of them were using in either fifth or sixth grade."
And she says Colfax Chief of Police Bill Spears spoke to the SAFE committee on the increased number of drug-related arrests in town.
But Spears has no such statistics to back his view. When asked about the rise in drug-related arrests, he says, "that was in general. We didn't have any specific amounts other than we have 5-10 arrests per month."
Still, Spears says dog searches of the school are justified. "When 5-10 arrests are made in a community this size; that's unheard of in my opinion."
Yet he adds, "I don't have any statistics to compare that with."
Kathleen Gannon, an active Colfax-Mingo parent, doesn't have a problem with drug-sniffing dogs at school. "When you don't have anything to hide," she says, "I don't look at it as my rights being violated."
She theorizes on the reason for the drug paranoia hitting the town. Generationally, Gannon says, "We're comfortable with [alcohol] because it was my generation's drug of choice. We're uncomfortable with the next generation's drug of choice."
Bill Reding has been teaching at the high school since 1972. He doesn't see cause for alarm. "I may be getting old and naive, but in comparison to what it was in the 70s, it just doesn't seem near to what we've got today," he says. "Maybe I'm just not looking for the right signs."
"People are just different today than 10-25 years ago," he muses. "Students probably aren't as conscious of their constitutional rights. It's just reflective of the conservative time we live in."
Reding says the time and money spent on drug dogs may have better use. "It would be nice to get a few new school buildings."
Spears describes the dog search with the zeal of a smalltown cop with his first radar gun. "The students will be in the rooms," he assures. "The teachers will be advised when we do the hit, if we do the hit."
"I guarantee you that the word will spread fast that the dog had been there and done the search. That's going to deter, hopefully, any student to bring drugs to school. I'm not looking to throw any kids in jail. That's not my purpose in this whole thing."
"The likelihood of finding anything would be pretty slim," says Hagarty. "But the message would be pretty clear that the Colfax-Mingo school system is not going to tolerate drug use.
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. But the amendment has taken its share of hits including an ease on restrictions on public school searches. Iowa recently lifted restrictions requiring 24-hour notice before locker searches.
As for Colfax, it's finally getting some attention. On Dec. 22, Gov. Branstad will spend the day about town. Reason for his visit: to give the city its SAFE certification and road sign.
"I haven't seen 70 people gather in Colfax for anything other than church services."
SUE HAGARTY, ON THE SUBSTANCE ABUSE TOWN MEETING
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