PUNXSUTAWNEY — Brett, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s K-9 unit, may be close to retirement, but his master and handler Sheriff Carl Gotwald Sr. would like to see him perform a few more sweeps — ideally, in Punxsutawney area schools.
Monday, board President Gary Conrad, who had invited Gotwald to speak to the board, said he would like to offer Gotwald and Brett an open invitation to search the schools, provided that Gotwald has a class schedule.
Superintendent Dr. Keith Wolfe, who formerly had Gotwald and Brett visit Brookville Junior-Senior High School when he served as principal, said whoever performs the search would ideally perform it at a time when students are in class, and not swarming the halls toward lockers and elsewhere.
With Brett, an almost-nine-year-old German shepherd, resting at his side Monday, Gotwald told the board that in the almost seven years he has worked with Brett, he has never had him in Punxsy schools, aside from a bomb threat a few years ago — but not because he didn’t want to bring Brett to the schools.
“Punxsy has a drug problem,” he said.
Citing the recent arrest of nine individuals for trafficking of marijuana and prescription drugs, he added, “Most of those people were in their 20s; they were not just starting when they turned 18 or got out of high school.”
The attention span of a search dog is about 20 minutes, Gotwald said, with a recommended two-hour rest between searches.
“If you went in and just walked through whole school, you’re talking about two hours.” he said. “You can’t do a whole school. You would need five or six dogs.”
A search could entail one hallway one week, another hall the next week, a third area the next day or week — all random searches.
“Nobody would know you’re coming,” aside from the superintendent or a building principal, he said.
Also, a single search animal cannot perform an entire search.
Gotwald said before he was elected sheriff, as a deputy, he would make his normal stops and deliver warrants in the area. But if time allowed, he would contact school officials and seek to perform a search when he wasn’t performing his other duties.
“It was a perfect opportunity to stop and check things out,” he said.
Gotwald also discussed what he called a “standing invitation” in the Clearfield Area School District, where he said the administration welcomes him and Brett to perform searches any day Gotwald chooses.
That invitation has been in place for several years, he said, and that over the last three years, there have been no drugs found in the school, because the dogs have been in the schools.
He said rarely do searches yield actual drugs, Gotwald said, but the smell of marijuana, for example, indicates that a student has recently used marijuana or was with another student who has used the drug.
As far as Brett, his searches that find drugs or paraphernalia do not end with him biting or clawing at a location. Instead, he sits in front of the location, similar to dogs who search for bombs, Gotwald said.
He said the only disappointment with the Clearfield program is that he sought to search a row of vehicles in the parking lot, but was told he was not allowed because those vehicles belonged to teachers.
“I think you should do everyone” in a search, he said, to which Conrad agreed.
“Nobody’s exempt,” Conrad said.
Gotwald said he hopes to have Brett perform searches for two more years, but at almost nine years of age, Brett’s is nearing his own retirement.
“It’s a fantastic tool,” Gotwald said, adding that a K-9 unit is similar to other non-lethal tools such as Tasers, in which a subject simply gives up instead of facing physical police action.
He said students would very much know about the dog program.
“They’d see it, and they’d see we’re serious,” he said.