Archive for Thursday, December 13, 2007

Community support said to be critical to drug testing

December 13, 2007

Officials from school districts that already have implemented random student drug testing agree community support is vital for the program to be successful.

"If the community is not supportive of this, then you are fighting a losing battle," said Jay Sabatino, superintendent of Community High School District 117 in Lake Villa, Ill.

For the last five years, the Illinois school district with more than 2,600 high school students has performed random student drug tests on students in athletics and those with a parking pass, Sabatino said.

Community support is just what the De Soto USD 232 Board of Education's committee on random student drug testing is looking for. Two weeks ago, the committee had two meetings to find out what community members think about randomly drug testing seventh- through 12th-grade students in the district. Reactions to drug testing students were mixed with patrons citing concerns about drug use but also wondering about the violations of students' privacy and the cost of implementing such a policy.

School Board President and committee member Janine Gracy said the feedback would help the committee continue to fine-tune a policy proposal that it eventually will present to the school board. So far, the committee has been studying random student drug testing for about a year.

Although Sabatino was not working for the Community High School District at the time, he said arrests, car accidents and deaths related to drug use spurred the district to begin drug testing students.

"The community reaction was 'we need to put a stop to this,'" Sabatino said.

So the school district developed a policy that requires all students participating in a competitive athletic team or with a parking pass to be drug tested and then put into a pool where students are randomly tested once every two or three weeks.

Initially, the district tested students with urinalysis but now mostly tests hair samples because it can detect drugs in the system for several months, Sabatino said.

"Hair testing is being able to give us a more accurate reading for a longer period of time," he said. "We are trying to present something to students to stay off of (drugs) in preparation for their seasons and tell them we can go back in time, so it isn't going to be just this weekend. It's going to go back three months."

National trend

Nationally, more schools are implementing random student drug testing policies.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that about 1,000 school districts nationwide have implemented random student drug testing, said Stephen Schatz, public affairs specialist with ONDCP.

However, Schatz said it is hard to keep track of how many schools have policies in place because not all schools fund their programs with federal grants that are tracked by the office.

The ONDCP was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to create policies, priorities and objectives for the nation's drug control program.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education started awarding grants to develop and implement or to expand school-based random or voluntary drug-testing programs for students in sixth through 12th grades. Since then, more than 400 schools have received about $11 million in three-year grants for student drug-testing programs.

A national map of known student drug-testing sites from the ONDCP shows that student drug testing hasn't caught on in most states in the Midwest, but is prevalent in Texas, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky and New Jersey.

Nearby testing

The closest school district to De Soto implementing random student drug testing is in Oak Grove, Mo., which is about 55 miles east of De Soto on the outskirts of the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Oak Grove is in its first year of randomly drug testing students who are in activities, both athletic and non-athletic, or who have a parking pass.

Superintendent James Haley said it wasn't a drug problem that sparked Oak Grove to implement a policy.

"It's to give kids another initiative not to try drugs and to avoid peer pressure," he said.

He isn't alone in his reasoning. The De Soto committee on random student drug testing has cited the same benefit at its community meetings.

Sabatino, from Community High School District, shared the same view.

"The intention is to give a student the opportunity to say 'no' to his peers," he said.

Like Community High School District, widespread support for Oak Grove's policy overcame the few objections, Haley said.

"The reaction in the community was overwhelmingly positive," he said. "We just see it as a way to help our kids in life and help parents as they try to help their kids."

The district has tested about 15 students each month since the beginning of the school year using urinalysis. About 87 percent of the 658-student high school are included in the test pool, and so far, none have tested positive, Haley said.

Community High School District surveyed students before and after implementing drug testing and has noticed positive results, Sabatino said.

"Four years later, students were coding significantly less use of drugs," he said. "What was interesting was they were coding the same use of alcohol."

About 60 percent of students are tested in the exclusively high school district.

So far, only about 1 percent of the students in the pool have tested positive, Sabatino said. Although it's a small amount, Sabatino said it's worth the testing.

"For those three, four, five or six kids in that situation, it's significant because a lot of times parents are not aware of it," he said. "I would also suggest that (the number of students using drugs) would be much higher if those tests weren't there."

Although drug testing has proved successful in Sabatino's district, he said it might not be the answer for every community.

"First of all, number one make sure that this is what you want to do," Sabatino said. "You don't want to be in the middle of the first year and have the entire community protest against you," he said.

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