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May 29, 2005 - The Connecticut Post (CT)

Students Losing Freedoms

By Matthew Higbee

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A junior high school in northern California pins radio identification tags on its students. New Jersey high school students must hand over a urine sample before trying out for band or earning parking privileges.

While not as intrusive as other states, schools in Connecticut are part of the trend to use ever more aggressive techniques to keep track of where students are, what they bring to school and what they put in their bodies.

West Haven High School is contemplating its own ID tag system. Police in Shelton and Oxford use a drug-sniffing dog to ferret out drugs and paraphernalia among students' possessions. And a bill is pending in the state Legislature that could lead to mandatory steroid testing for high school athletes.

It's all done in the name of safety. But privacy rights advocates say schools are attacking constitutional freedoms without a proper airing in the public square.

"We see a very real problem in our students and young people," said Roger Vann, director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. "It's a demographic that's more and more under attack. They're a vulnerable population."

Since the war on drugs was declared in the 1980s, many schools have become part of the battlefield.

With the goal of making their classrooms and hallways safer, school administrators across the country declared zero-tolerance policies that have resulted in automatic suspensions and expulsions for students caught with illegal drugs. Principals have authorized random searches of lockers and cars parked on the school grounds. And students who want to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities must submit to drug tests.

According to a 2003 study by the University of Michigan's Journal of the School of Health, 19 percent of the schools engage in some form of drug testing.

Wrong Message?

While the courts have backed up schools on locker searches and drug testing, privacy advocates worry that an overzealous pursuit of a handful of offenders is sending a message that runs counter to lessons taught in civics classes. Their greater fear is that schools are teaching a generation of Americans to accept greater limitations on their privacy and freedom. "When dogs walk through the school, it creates a presumption that everyone is guilty, everyone is a suspect," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which advocates for drug-policy reform. "Is the lesson that they get [that] privacy doesn't mean anything? This carries over to medical records and financial rights of privacy. It is a deconditioning of students," he said.

A University of Connecticut survey earlier this year confirmed the fears of Vann, Sterling and others. A significant number of high school students demonstrated a limited understanding of the Bill of Rights. Many said that our country's founding principles went too far. Providing a safe environment, however, is the top priority for many school officials. "I take great umbrage at people that don't want their kid's locker searched," Shelton High School Headmaster Don Ramia said. "If your kid's clean, you should welcome that." A 14-year administrator and part-time supernumerary officer with the Shelton Police Department, Ramia said his school's discipline policy has evolved for the better. What used to require a cumbersome evaluation process before he could suspend a student is now streamlined. Students face immediate consequences when found with drugs, including suspension, arrest and mandatory appointments with drug-treatment counselors.

Ramia and administrators throughout the region insist their focus is on individual students who need an intervention. But in strengthening their relationships with the police, Shelton and other schools have also crossed into the territory of broad searches that treat all students as suspects.

Several weeks ago, Oxford administrators invited State Police to bring in a dog for a sweep of Great Oak Middle School after students were found with drug paraphernalia. No drugs were found.

Shelton High School administrators met with a similar result several years ago when police dogs sniffed the lockers there. So, Ramia said, the school's administration changed its approach to allow the dogs to roam the parking lot. And earlier this year, a police dog sniffed bags of students embarking on a ski trip.

"It's my job as an administrator to suspend kids using drugs. It gets them out of the population," Ramia said.

From his Washington, D.C., office, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy Director Tom Angel advocates less punitive discipline policies. Pointing to statistics showing a rise in drug use among teenagers over the last two decades, he calls the war on drugs a failure.

"Zero-tolerance approaches seem to turn our schools into pipelines into prison," Angel said. "It puts students at risk because they don't approach school officials when they need help. It fosters a gotcha' attitude."

But for many young drug users, getting caught forces them to face up to their harmful habits, according Julie Penry, director of the Shelton Youth Services Bureau.

"It breaks down the wall of denial," Penry said. "Once that breaks down, they can get help from the crisis team within the school."

Privacy or Safety?

Shelton Youth Services Bureau's primary role is to provide a confidential resource for students needing help. It ran into a flap after it bought breathalyzers for testing teenagers who showed up drunk at student dances. When the school board learned of the testing devices only after reading about them in the local newspaper, they put their rollout on hold until an attorney reviews the legal issues. Such an example leads some to question just who is driving school policies and whether the community is appropriately involved.

"At a minimum, a community needs to put to the school the question of what are the values we want to teach," said Sterling, of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Some might say we want safety at all costs. Or a community can say privacy is preferential and want to instill to the school administrators that you don't give up privacy rights without showing that it is something that needs to be given up."

Such a discussion has acquired urgency, Sterling said, with the rise of random drug tests in states like New Jersey, where many public school students are required to submit a urinalysis before participating in an extracurricular activity or, in one school, attain parking privileges. The U.S. Education Department is backing such efforts. Beginning this year, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program will give priority to grant proposals for school-based random or voluntary drug-testing programs. While testing students for street drugs has not hit Connecticut, random testing for steroids has made its way into a bill pending before the state Legislature. It was introduced by state House Republican leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford, following a scandal involving steroid use among football players at Madison's Daniel Hand High School.

Many officials see expanded testing in the state as only a matter of time. Andrea Leonardi, the state Department of Education contact for the drug-free schools program, notes the rise of testing in other areas of society such as the workplace and professional sports. "I think there are a number of things that will trickle down," she said. Leonardi cautioned that before implementing random testing, schools should make sure that punishment is not the consequence.

"We know that punishment is the least effective methodology for getting kids off drugs," Leonardi said. "What are we going to use that information to do? Treat or punish?"

Whether or not drug testing works is a matter of debate. In a 2003 University of Michigan study, researchers found no evidence that random testing deterred drug use. But other experts have questioned the methodology of that study.

The Last Resort

Area school officials, meanwhile, appear hesitant to implement suspicionless testing. Milford school board member Mark Stapleton said its schools rely on peer counseling as a first line for dealing with behavioral problems. "Testing would be the very last resort. We don't think it's necessary or appropriate," Stapleton said. "Hopefully, students are sufficiently connected with their parents and teachers and friends."

Walking home from school with his friends on a recent afternoon, Stanley Almadovar, a 15-year-old Alternative High School student in Shelton, said that invasive methods for finding drugs were unnecessary. If teachers and administrators were really serious about helping drug users, he said, all they have to do is listen.

"I don't think surveillance is necessary," Almadovar said. "They should have teachers pay attention. In most classrooms, kids are saying what they do."

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