Border Patrol to inspect buses at checkpoints, school officials told
By ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN
MARFA – Representatives from area public schools sat down with U.S. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector officials last Thursday to discuss the agency’s policy regarding school bus inspections at checkpoints following the recent incident where nearly 500 pounds of marijuana was discovered on a Van Horn school bus in Marfa.
“Our objective is the safety of the children,” Chief Patrol Agent John Smietana said to the room full of school officials from Alpine, Balmorhea, Fort Davis, Fort Stockton, Marfa, Pecos, Presidio, Sierra Blanca, Valentine, and Van Horn.
“We know how big an event this was. We want to make sure you’re comfortable the next time your bus goes through our checkpoints,” Border Patrol agent Steven Crump said as he explained the policies regarding school buses passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint and what Border Patrol plans to do in the future.
Crump said that Border Patrol agents typically run drug- and human-detecting canines along the downwind side of vehicles stopped at checkpoints to detect any hidden contraband or passengers.
“We’re going to go a step beyond what we typically do,” Crump said regarding school buses, which is to have a canine unit check three sides of the bus instead of just the downwind side.
The canines, Crump explained, aren’t trained to find the substance, but rather the odor of narcotics or smuggled passengers.
In the event that a canine alerts to a hidden substance on a school bus, the bus will be sent to a secondary inspection, the bus driver and faculty notified of the situation, and all passengers, including the driver, faculty, school staff and students, will be asked to exit the bus and leave all their belongings on board.
Agents won’t inquire about the immigration status of students, he said. “Any student in your care, we will not be conducting an immigration inspection.”
A canine unit will inspect the exterior and interior of the school bus, and should any narcotics be found, large or small, the case will be handed over to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials and local police officers and school officials will be notified.
If a search yields a negative result, but Border Patrol agents are suspicious that a passenger is carrying narcotics, local law enforcement will be notified.
“We’re going to let the school or local law enforcement deal with that. We’re not going to be frisking students. We’re not going to be patting down children,” Crump said.
Presidio ISD Superintendent Dennis McEntire suggested that area schools take a pro-active step in preventing narcotics or people from being smuggled on their buses.
“Presidio has been doing this for years. We know where we live. We know our kids are at risk. We invite the DEA and Border Patrol to our schools, but they are limited,” McEntire said, adding that his school district employs the use of drug-sniffing dogs on their vehicles and campuses.
Asked how the nearly 500 pounds of marijuana made it past the Marfa checkpoint in the first place, Crump and sector deputy chief patrol agent Carry Huffman said that a canine unit was simply not available that night.
Van Horn student athletes had played some basketball games in Presidio the night of November 19. The pot was discovered by the Van Horn bus driver and a coach when the teams stopped for a snack at the eastside Marfa Stripes convenience store before returning to Van Horn.
“In all likelihood, if a canine was there it would have alerted. We just don’t have the amount of dogs we would like to have,” Huffman said.
“The problem with the so called drug war,” Presidio County Judge Paul Hunt said during the meeting, “is it has created distribution networks that looks for soft spots in our society and co-opts our most precious things. We need policies in place like these to protect (Emergency Medical Services) and kids.”
McEntire agreed. “I think this is sending a message to everyone: don’t use our buses because we’re going to catch it.”
He said that the schools have a responsibility to help federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies combat these types of smuggling operations. He also addressed the negative perception that Presidio has received in the wake of this ordeal.
“You don’t need a (police) escort to go to Presidio. It’s not dangerous,” McEntire said. “We are preventative.”
Huffman, who said his children ride the school buses in the area, said the 500-pound drug event was an “eye opener,” and that Border Patrol is going to “be more aggressive. We’re going to be more demonstrative. They’ve taken a very positive stance in Presidio (schools). Presidio checks their buses. We want what we do at our checkpoints to equalize (what schools do).”
Smietana ended the discussion by saying that the communities in the Big Bend area are some of the safest communities “because everyone works together,” and that with further cooperation, “we’ll make sure this is the safest place in the country.”