Suspicion-Based Drug Testing a Go

By Beacon Staff

In recent months a torrent of debate has surrounded the role that parents and teachers should play concerning kids and drug use at Whitefish High School. The debate culminated on Aug. 12 when the school board approved a suspicion-based drug-testing policy for all WHS students with a 5-2 vote.

Critics are sure to speak up.

A random-testing policy for students who participate in extracurricular activities was tabled for further discussion because, according to Whitefish school district superintendent Jerry House, the district is still researching outside agencies that would be capable of providing professional, independent insight.

School districts across the country handle drug testing in a myriad of ways, ranging from random testing to implementing the services of outside drug and alcohol specialists, who help to maintain privacy and create a separation of responsibilities for teachers. Confidentiality is the primary concern.

The suspicion-based program, House said, will be implemented immediately after a three-phase training process, where school administrators will be trained in prevention and intervention. Then teachers will also be trained, paving the way for the implementation of student assistance programs that will serve a variety of purposes, including further research into effective strategies for dealing with drug prevention.

“This is about an overall picture completed in layers,” House said.

Under the suspicion-based program, administrators – not students – are left to assess whether a student is under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on school grounds or at school-sponsored events. For instance, if a student shows up at a basketball game and a team of five trained administrators determines through reasonable suspicion or after having seen an illegal act that the student is impaired, action will then be taken. Parents will be contacted and asked for permission to administer a test – a breathalyzer for alcohol or urinalysis if drugs are involved.

Students can refuse the test, but if they do so they will be held to the school’s current drug and alcohol policy and sent home, or possibly suspended. A first-time offender will be suspended for three days. Those caught with contraband on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event will be reported to law enforcement.

Funding for the tests has been raised by Whitefish citizens, most notably John Kalbfleisch, a parent of a high school kid and a local doctor. North Valley Hospital has offered to waive the cost of a second test if necessary.

Discussion about a drug-testing policy at the school initially picked up steam following an erroneous interpretation of data in a Youth Risk Behavior survey. Because of the mistake, educators were led to believe drug use was 60 percent higher at the high school than it actually was.

School officials, however, maintain that the school has a substance abuse problem, no matter what statistics you’re looking at. They point to figures like the number of drug and alcohol infractions at the school: 18 in the fall of 2007, up from 10 infractions for all of 2006.

Other high schools in the state are looking to drug testing as well, including Anaconda. In May the school board approved random drug testing with a 5-1 vote. But the testing doesn’t come without its critics.

Licensed Whitefish counselor Andy Hudak expressed concern over random drug testing in an April 2008 commentary in the Beacon, saying he acknowledged there was a “serious drug and alcohol problem,” but added: “Policy should be implemented based on whether it is scientifically demonstrated to be effective; engages the highest number of our youth; and rejects them only as a last result.”

Hudak, a therapist of 30 years who focuses on destructive thinking and behavior patterns in sexuality and drugs and alcohol, believes random testing is not the best approach to curb drug and alcohol use.

“The only good scientific studies on random drug testing show them to be ineffective,” Hudak wrote.

Three Democratic candidates running for state attorney general also voiced skepticism about the constitutionality of random drug testing for WHS students during a May forum in Kalispell. All three said random testing wouldn’t hold up if challenged at the state’s Supreme Court level. In April of 2008, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that random drug testing of high school students violated a “privacy clause” in the state’s constitution.

But House remains confident in the policy.

“Our whole purpose here is to have a healthy, safe school environment,” House said. “That’s the whole idea behind this.”