GROWING numbers of schools are inviting police to hold drug searches using sniffer dogs in assemblies and classrooms.
Officers in at least four police forces have been piloting the voluntary visits. Officers involved say they have been surprised at the level of interest from headteachers and colleagues in other forces.
In Kent, officers visited 10 secondaries and caught 11 teenagers with cannabis, who were then placed on drug-treatment programmes.
Officers start a typical visit with an educational talk to pupils about drug searches. They demonstrate the skills of one of their sniffer dogs on a row of teachers, one of whom has been planted with heroin and cannabis. Other drug-detection dogs are then taken into classrooms and corridors to see if pupils have any illegal substances in their bags or lockers.
At the end of the talk, pupils are asked to file past a sniffer dog, who sits down in front of a suspect if it thinks it can smell drugs.
More than 3,000 pupils in west Kent have been checked using the scheme. Police say they have received only three complaints from pupils' families.
Sergeant Howard Chandler, head of West Kent drugs liaison unit, said private schools had also expressed interest in the scheme.
A similar scheme operates in Devon and Cornwall after a widely-publicised incident in January in which one pupil was charged and three reprimanded when a sniffer dog found cannabis at Ilfracombe community college in north Devon.
Thameside Valley and Bedfordshire police have also been offering sniffer dog visits this year. They stress that the talks are educational, although they will punish those caught with drugs.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said it was keen to back projects to improve drug education and enforcement, but wanted proper evaluation of the school visits before promoting them nationally.
Linda Wybar, head of Tunbridge Wells girls grammar, received a visit last term. She said: "With the changes from the Government on cannabis, it's still crucial that pupils understand what can happen if they are in possession of drugs."
PC Alan Hibbins, youth crime education officer for West Kent police, said it was just as important to educate the teachers as the pupils on the drug visits.
To prove his point he brings with him an elaborately-constructed perspex "bong". The apparatus, used for smoking cannabis, was created earlier this year by a 15-year-old at a Kent school - with the unwitting help of his design and technology teacher.