Drug Testing Debate Fraught With Legal, Moral Questions

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – It’s hard to say just how many parents here oppose the school’s push toward implementing random drug testing of high school students who participate in extracurricular activities. But at the April 22 school board meeting, school officials made clear that, drug testing or not, something more must be done about drug use among students – and anyone who thinks the problem is not as grave as coaches and faculty make it out to be have not spent enough time inside the school’s walls.

“I have kids coming into my office bawling their eyes out because they’re so addicted to drugs,” said School Resource Officer Rob Veneman. “For those of you that are against this policy, I hope you have better ideas … because I guarantee you don’t know what’s going on at that school.” Coaches showed unanimous support for the drug-testing policy and Assistant Principal Jeff Peck urged the board to do what it could to have a policy in place as soon as possible.

Opponents of random drug testing, however, argued that peeing in a cup is humiliating, and will breed a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality at the school that will exacerbate contempt by students for authority.

“If you trust these students they will aspire to be great,” Jeff Gilman, a father of two, told the board. “If you treat them as criminals, either way you get to be right.”

Now the Whitefish school board finds itself facing an issue that raises fundamental questions about the role a school should play in a community, and the shifting lines of responsibility that educators and parents share where drug use by kids is concerned. Add to that the near certainty that any drug testing policy implemented by the school will face a legal challenge – which would be the first of its kind in the state – from someone in the community and the agreement by the school and parents that a larger shift in attitude toward drugs and alcohol in Whitefish must accompany any new policy.

Superintendent Jerry House said the school board is currently in a “discovery” phase, which will likely entail many more community forums, legal research and the examination of drug testing other than random, like voluntary, suspicion-based or mandatory testing for all students. A May 6 election has the potential to add up to three new members to the school board, which could further slow progress toward a vote. At this rate, House isn’t sure the board will have a policy in place to vote on by next school year.

But an eventual vote to administer drug tests appears likely, though the final policy will undergo several changes from the current draft, which was written by a committee of coaches and parents. Under the current draft, a student would consent to undergo an initial drug test by urine sample when volunteering for any extracurricular activity, be it football or choir. Students would then be subject to random drug tests for the rest of the activity’s season, with up to 20 percent of the students being tested.

The tests detect everything from alcohol to marijuana to meth to prescription painkillers. The school would retest initial positive drug tests, with the first offense resulting in a meeting with the student’s parents, a 15-day suspension from the activity, and mandatory participation in a substance abuse assistance program. A second positive test results in a 40-day suspension, and a third positive test within a two-year period would prohibit a student from participating in any extracurricular activities for the rest of their time in Whitefish.

The school board must now determine whether random drug testing is the best policy, with coaches arguing that suspicion- or cause-based drug testing destroys the trust between student-athletes and coaches. Equality issues also persist, as the punishment for a student caught with drugs in class is currently much harsher than a student caught through random drug testing. It’s also unclear how to measure the success of a drug testing policy a few years in without some objective benchmarks established beforehand. Does a high number of positive test results mean the policy is working or failing? And perhaps most importantly, should Whitefish’s drug testing policy go to court, the school must be able to demonstrate that it had a clear need for drug testing kids.

While House said coaches have been pushing to implement some form of drug testing since he began as superintendent eight years ago, the real push behind the current proposal came about by an initial misreading of a state Youth Risk Behavior survey which led many educators to believe drug use at Whitefish High was 60 percentage points higher than it really is.

But officials maintain there is an increasing problem at the school. House said seven out of nine extracurricular activities had issues with drug and alcohol use this fall. At the April 22 meeting, Peck told the board there were 18 total drug and alcohol infractions this fall, up from 10 infractions all year last year. Out of the 12 students who Peck said he knows dropped out due to drug problems, half of the kids were in activities.

On a recent afternoon at Whitefish High, most students interviewed said the proposed testing was the talk of the school. While many acknowledged that drug use is rampant, the students questioned whether drug testing would be effective.

“It’s kind of an invasion of privacy, testing when you have no reason to test,” said Matt Danczyk, a sophomore on the soccer and speech and debate teams. “A lot of the kids who do drugs and are in these programs will just quit.”

Senior Emily Wilson agreed with Danczyk, believing that random drug tests will discourage kids from participating in extracurricular clubs and sports.

“Drugs are so incredibly common in Whitefish, but I don’t know if that’s the way to go about it because it’s going to hurt the athletics,” Wilson said. “I think they’re going to be surprised how many people they catch.”

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