SAN DIEGO -- Calling student drug use a "national public-health problem," the White House's deputy drug czar told educators Wednesday that random drug testing can be a potent and effective deterrent strategy.
Mary Ann Solberg, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, strongly endorsed student screening before a crowd of roughly 150 school and community leaders at a conference on drug testing held at San Diego's Hilton Hotel in Mission Valley.
Opponents of student drug testing also attended the conference to ask questions of the speakers and speak with reporters in the hallways.
"We see this as a very one-sided dog-and-pony show," said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego.
Not only do drug-testing programs train children that the government can violate their bodily privacy, but they also keep money away from other prevention methods with more proven track records, Keenan said.
"We've evolved tremendously from 'Just say No,' " he said.
The regional conference, the second of four planned for 2006, came less than a week after the Vista Unified School District trustees approved random testing for high school students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities.
The Vista program is funded by a federal grant and could start by the end of the month.
Aside from the Oceanside Unified School District, which randomly tests its high school athletes, few North County school districts have pursued drug testing.
None of the 84,000 or so students in Southwest Riverside County is randomly drug-tested. Reached by phone and e-mail this week, officials with public school districts in Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Menifee and Perris said it's a program they do not employ.
"There are a lot of ramifications and invasion-of-privacy issues," said Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for the 25,000-student Temecula Valley Unified School District, of drug-testing students. "We basically tell the students what is acceptable and what isn't acceptable, and athletes are the unspoken definition of role models and we expect them to act that way."
Solberg told attendees that voluntary drug testing deters students from using illegal substances and helps identify those already using so they can get the help they need.
The tests should be confidential, she said, and positive results should not get students in legal hot water.
"This can never appear on a permanent record," she said in a press conference following her opening remarks. "This is not a criminal justice issue."
But in a hallway interview, Jennifer Kern, a research associate with the Drug Policy Alliance, said promises of a drug test's confidentiality should offer little comfort to those who take them. "Students are pulled out of class (for testing), then suddenly they're not on the basketball team," she said, when asked how results could become public knowledge.
About 51 percent of high school seniors reported taking an illicit drug in their lifetimes, according to the national Monitoring the Future survey in 2004. The survey was funded by the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, and was conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. The survey has been done annually since 1975.
Student drug testing is a key component of the White House's National Drug Control Strategy. Solberg's office held a conference last month in Orlando, Fla., and will travel to two more cities, Falls Church, Va., and Milwaukee, in 2006 to promote the plan.
Attendees at the all-day event in San Diego heard presentations ranging from legal issues, testing technology and how to develop a screening program.
Attorney William Judge said that in his opinion, random student drug-testing programs were not only legal but that they could also protect schools from lawsuits.
"The question will be, 'What did you do to reasonably protect my kid?' " he said.
Near the conclusion of her opening remarks, Solberg emphasized that drug-testing programs should not be imposed by superintendents or school boards, it should be a "community decision."
"It's something I'm interested in implementing," said attendee Chris Greene, athletic director at Carlsbad High School, during a break in the presentations. "I think it's positive for the kids."
He added, however, that the district is still in the information-gathering stage and "we can't rush to any judgments."
Staff writer Jennifer Kabbany contributed to this report.
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