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March 25, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Is This The Answer To Drug Use?

By David Hocieniewski

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Hackettstown, N.J. - Kristin Somers was sitting in her 10th-grade English class at Hackettstown High last year when a call came over the intercom telling her to report to the office. Immediately.

An honors student with a 3.8 average here in northwestern New Jersey, she wasn't being summoned to discuss her academic performance. And while she participates in an array of after-school organizations -- from soccer and softball to the National Honor Society and Key Club -- the issue wasn't her extracurricular activities or future plans.

She was instructed, instead, to go to the nurse's office, where she was led into a bathroom and told to urinate into a plastic cup so officials could test for recent illicit drug use.

"It was a little odd," said Kristin, now 17, who blushed as she recounted the story. "But it was over pretty quick. And I was back in class in, like, 10 minutes."

For middle and high school students in about 1,000 districts across the country, including about two dozen in New Jersey, random drug tests have become routine, like pop quizzes for a student's body. The increase in screening began after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that schools could test students participating in extracurricular activities. Students are screened for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and an assortment of other narcotics, and a growing number of districts are now looking to use urine tests to determine whether students have drunk alcohol, including outside school.

If they have, parents are notified and students are barred from school activities until they receive counseling. Test results are confidential and are not included on disciplinary records.

State education officials in New York said that there are no public school districts in Westchester or on Long Island that use random testing. "I simply don't recall anyone ever bringing it up," said Janet Walker, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for Connecticut's Department of Education, said public schools have no random drug-testing programs.

But Ginger Katz, whose son, Ian, died of a heroin overdose in 1996, shortly after he graduated from high school in Norwalk, said she wished more schools would adopt testing.

"He loved his sports," said Ms. Katz, who started a foundation, The Courage to Speak, after her son's death. "He wouldn't have risked losing the right to participate by smoking marijuana on the weekends."

Both supporters and opponents agree that New Jersey has been quicker to adopt random testing than other states. Two years ago, the state became the first to authorize random screening for steroids of any high school athlete whose team qualified for postseason play.

Administrators say the tests help improve both school safety and public health by discouraging drug use among some troubled youngsters during school hours and by giving students a reason to resist peer pressure outside school.

But despite the steady increase in random testing, recent studies have raised doubts about whether it actually works. Several teachers' unions and organizations and medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics oppose random tests, saying they undermine the trust between students and school officials without offering help to those most at risk. And some parents view them as a blatant invasion of privacy because they measure drug use, and in some cases, alcohol use, that took place days earlier. Some drug tests can measure drug use that took place months earlier.

Still, federal officials say an average of one school a month around the country has added testing programs in the past several years. And a handful of schools, like Middletown and Pequannock Township High School in Pompton Plains, N.J., have begun using a more sensitive test that, administrators say, can detect on Monday whether a student drank beer at a party the previous Friday night. Even to students like Kristin Somers, who passed her drug test and supports screening programs, such scrutiny seems intimidating.

"If they tested for alcohol at our school," she said, "there'd be an uprising."

THE relatively muted resistance to drug-screening programs thus far is just one indication of the sharp shift in public attitudes since Nancy Reagan galvanized the antidrug movement with the mantra "just say no." In the past two decades, several Supreme Court rulings have allowed screening in progressively wider swaths of society, expanding from the military to the criminal justice system to the workplace to professional sports and, finally, to public schools.

The first school testing programs began in the 1990s, and their use spread more quickly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which made many Americans more willing to sacrifice privacy for the prospect of more security. In 2002, a Supreme Court ruling found that mandatory tests were permissible, as long as they weren't linked to a student's right to academic instruction. Since then, most schools have made the tests "voluntary" by making them a requirement for students who want to participate in extracurricular activities or receive other privileges, like using the school parking lot.

Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of demand reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that in her travels around the country, she has found that an overwhelming number of students and parents now embrace testing as a tool to help monitor students. Dr. Madras spent years researching the long-term damage of drugs and alcohol in the still-developing adolescent brain. She has come to view testing as a kind of preventive medicine.

"The goal isn't to punish students," Dr. Madras said at a recent seminar with school administrators in New Jersey. "We're trying to change behavior, and parents appreciate that."

Even staunch opponents of screening concede that schools should be able to test any student suspected of being intoxicated on campus.

But civil liberties advocates say schools have no business trying to usurp a parent's right to regulate behavior outside school.

"The desire to protect students from the dangers of alcohol or other drugs is understandable," said Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "But sometimes this concern takes on a zeal that ignores other legitimate concerns, such as whether it intrudes on family privacy."

William Sciambi, who successfully organized the fight to prevent the Delaware Valley School District in Hunterdon County, N.J., from beginning a testing program, said he was offended by the prospect of school officials usurping his responsibility to monitor his children's behavior. Mr. Sciambi said he talks openly with his children about drug and alcohol use in hopes of teaching them to make responsible choices.

So, in 2004, when he learned that his district was considering a testing program, Mr. Sciambi organized a campaign with a few dozen other parents who have twice persuaded the school board not to begin screening.

If anyone at school tried to give his children urine tests, "they'd have to put me in jail," said Mr. Sciambi, whose son is 12 and daughter is 15. "Because I'd go down there and raise hell."

Advocates of testing say they've tried to address those concerns by designing programs to be as discreet and clinical as possible. David G. Evans, a lawyer who has helped several New Jersey districts set up programs, concedes that the tests are invasive. But he said the court decisions that permit testing are a triumph of common sense, because they give educators one more tool to fight drugs.

At most schools with testing programs, students who want to participate in extracurricular activities must agree to random screening, and parents must sign a consent form. The school assures them that the process will be confidential. Tests that show signs of drugs or alcohol are described merely as "non-negative" and sent to a lab for more testing. If that test shows evidence of drug or alcohol use, parents are notified and students are forbidden to participate in the activity. They are not allowed to resume until they have received counseling inside or outside school, devised a treatment plan to avoid drugs and alcohol and passed a subsequent drug test.

School officials say they never publicly disclose test results or allow them to appear on permanent records that might affect a college application.

"Sometimes the other kids can figure out why someone would miss two weeks of baseball or drama club," said Lisa A. Brady, superintendent of South Hunterdon Regional High School in Lambertville, N.J., who developed one of the nation's first random drug testing policies. "That's a consequence every student has to think about."

At Pequannock, which has New Jersey's most stringent testing policy, a computer program randomly selects students to be tested. And administrators say they try to personalize the process. John Graf, a former teacher who runs the testing program at both the high school and middle school, says he tries not to disrupt academic classes and usually takes students only from gym class, lunch or study hall.

As he escorts them to the nurse's office, Mr. Graf explains the procedure and reassures them that even if their test shows use of a prescription drug or false positive, it will be double-checked.

"Just those few words usually helps them relax a lot," Mr. Graf said.

At the nursing office, tests are performed by a medical technician, Bobbi Jo Murphy, who lives in the district and knows many of the families. Even she can't avoid some alienating moments: when students go into the bathroom, the water is turned off, to prevent anyone from diluting a urine sample or using the tap to heat drug-free urine that was smuggled in. "There's a temperature strip on the container, and I can feel whether it's the right body temperature; I can also tell by the smell," she said, demonstrating with two sniffs of an empty vial. "If it doesn't smell like ammonia, it's not a fresh sample."

Principal William H. Trusheim of Pequannock Valley Middle School said parent feedback was overwhelmingly positive. At the high school, 75 percent of the 800 students have signed up for the program, which includes a test for ethyl glucuronide, which stays in the bloodstream for up to four days after alcohol consumption. The middle school, which does not use that test, has about 80 percent of its 600 students in the program.

About 20 percent of the students in the pool are tested annually. The annual costs range from $12,000 to $40,000. At Pequannock, a $120,000 federal grant is covering the cost of the tests and the additional staff for the next three years. Many of the other schools have also received federal funds.

"The district started this after a student died of an overdose," Dr. Trusheim said. "I think most parents realize it's a tool to help them."

Things haven't gone smoothly everywhere. In December, at Melvin H. Kreps Middle School in East Windsor, N.J., an eighth grader, Bobby Raymond, arrived at the lunch room late and was stopped by a teacher who thought he appeared anxious. Bobby, then 13, was escorted to the nurse's office and ordered to take a drug test. His parents were called, and after telling school officials not to test him, they hurried to the school.

"We said: 'You're not doing this to our son. You're not putting him through this,' " Dorothy Raymond said. "We got there and were banging on the nurse's door office for three minutes, but they wouldn't let us in. Finally when they opened it Bobby sees us and gives me a hug. He said they poured his urine sample down the drain. And after all of that they told him he'd passed the test."

But testing advocates say random drug screens can minimize such incidents.

For all the effort and the $1.7 million in federal financing for the programs, it is unclear whether they actually dissuade students from drinking and taking drugs. In surveys, administrators say the programs are working. In most districts only about 1 percent of all tests find evidence of drugs or alcohol, and schools argue that the low rate proves the tests are a deterrent.

But the largest study, by the University of Michigan in 2003, found no evidence that testing lowered the abuse rate. The federally financed study examined 90,000 students at 900 schools nationwide and found virtually identical rates in schools that tested and those that did not.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for less punitive narcotics laws, has tried to persuade school administrators to adopt other strategies, like counseling and drug education.

"Those are the kids who need help, who need to be brought into the school community, and they're being punished and pushed aside," said Jennifer Kern, a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Ms. Kern said the money used for screening, about $42 a test, could be redirected to provide additional treatment programs or hire more teachers and counselors.

The White House is offering financing and legal assistance to districts that start testing programs. Many students have simply accepted the tests but some say they have concerns.

At New Jersey's Middletown High School North, where school officials test for both alcohol and drugs, Erin Castle, 17, a junior, said she supported the testing until her younger sister, a freshman, was picked from the student pool. "She was upset with it," said Erin, whose sister's test was negative. "And I felt violated for her. It's an invasion of her privacy."

Kyle Hartman, 18, a senior who is editor of the school newspaper, said some students had talked about keeping a clean urine sample in their lockers while others believed that herbal teas would mask any trace of drugs or alcohol.

Christopher Lauth was a sophomore at Hackettstown when the school began testing three years ago, and he and many other students found it annoying.

"There were some kids who just switched to drinking," said Mr. Lauth, now a college freshman in Florida. "And some kids drank to rebel, because they were upset about the tests. Kind of like, 'Oh yeah? We'll show you!' "

Greg Lane, a Hackettstown junior, said he was one of many students unhappy about the program when it began, but had come to support it. But, he said, it is still common at after-school parties to see students smoking marijuana alongside those drinking from the kegs of beer.

"The kids who are doing drugs aren't always the ones you would suspect," he said. "It could be people involved in student government or cheerleaders. But the ones who are going to do it are going to do it no matter what."


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