More than one year after the Petaluma City Schools board voted to bring Petaluma Police Department's drug-sniffing K-9 dogs on campus in an effort to stop the proliferation of drug-related incidents, the initiative is finally moving forward.

Under the proposal, police dogs — members of the department's K-9 patrol unit — would be called to schools at random intervals to detect the presence of drugs on campus, particularly marijuana. The dogs, all dual-trained in both patrol work and drug detection, would only be used in empty hallways, rooms and parking lots and would not be brought near students.

The fledgeling program, meant to curb the rising number of suspensions stemming from drug-related offenses, will begin this month with two kick-off assemblies to educate students about the program and what to expect. Kenilworth Junior High School and San Antonio High School will be the first two schools to host assemblies featuring demonstrations and information from the Petaluma Police Department's K-9 unit.

Dave Rose, director of student services for the district, said the proposal has taken the past year to move forward because new dogs needed to be trained, and scheduling and other logistics had to be worked out. He added that he is excited about the new program's potential to deter on-campus drug use.

"We want to make sure the assemblies are held in a manner that communicates information with the parents and students in our schools," Rose said. "It's not meant to be a 'gotcha' situation. We're hoping that it's a deterrent to students."

Rose said that while he hasn't gathered numbers on drug use for the current school year, data collected in February of 2012 — when the proposal first came before the district school board — documented 77 suspensions and 19 expulsions during the first 69 days of the 2011-2012 school year. Those numbers marked an alarming increase from the same time period during the 2010-2011 school year, which saw 52 suspensions and seven expulsions. Suspensions involving possession or use of drugs over the entire school year skyrocketed from 54 during the 2006-2007 school year to 127 during 2010-2011.

Rose said Monday that in the last 15 school days the district had experienced 10 drug-related incidents in its schools. "For most of this year we were seeing a decline in numbers, but as spring has rolled around, we're already seeing an increase," Rose said. "As the year goes on, this is a trend we will continue to see as kids begin to enjoy the weather and are focused on the end of the school year."

Petaluma Police Lieutenant Matt Stapleton, who oversees Petaluma's K-9 unit, said that the department sees bringing the dogs onto campuses as a huge preventative measure in trying to control illegal drugs on school campuses. "Our schools are a major priority and we are willing to do anything we can to try and make the environment safer," he said.

The department's three dogs, Rico, Basko and the newest member Jimmy, are all dual-trained in patrol and narcotics. The three dogs are trained to locate drugs and place their noses on the spots where they detect them. Stapleton said that the department is looking forward to letting the students see what the dogs are capable of. "It's always fun to let the kids see our exceptional dogs," he said. "They're really well trained and we are so proud of the service they provide the community."

San Antonio Principal Lyn Moreno said that school faculty is excited to have one more tool to educate students. "The biggest thing for us is that it will be about deterrence and awareness," she said. "It will be an informational assembly that will introduce everyone to the whole process."

Rose said that the district and the police department will be working together in the near future to conduct similar presentations at other schools, though no dates have been set.

"At this point, we want to get the assemblies scheduled, have the chance to communicate with our students and parents, and then see what happens," said Rose. "We don't have a definitive plan yet for how the program will work because we're just starting out."

Stapleton said that the police department plans to take the school district's lead. "We'll work with the school's schedules and let them tell us when our services are needed," he said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)