Montana Schools Warm to Random Drug Testing

By Beacon Staff

Across the nation thousands of schools, including a handful in Montana, have adopted random drug testing for students. Just this fall, Colstrip and Anaconda implemented random testing policies for extracurricular activities, while here in the Flathead, the Whitefish school district has looked into a similar plan, and is still considering it. Meanwhile, the district has implemented a suspicion-based policy that applies to all students, not just athletes.

Whether shifting to random testing or other methods, it’s clear that school officials are actively looking for new ways to combat what they perceive as a growing drug problem, and the trend is picking up steam in Montana.

Thus far, Whitefish Superintendent Jerry House has been pleased with the results of the suspicion-based policy. House said only four students in the whole district, including a third-grader caught smoking marijuana, were disciplined under the new policy through the first quarter of the school year, which ended on Nov. 5. That number is less than a quarter of last fall’s total of 18.

“Am I saying (drug and alcohol use) has stopped? No. I don’t care what high school you’re in, that’s going to continue,” House said. “But now there’s more teeth in the policy: Whitefish school district’s not going to put up with it. So yeah, you should have a lower number. I would sure hope so.”

The Whitefish school board approved the suspicion-based policy in August, while tabling a proposed random testing policy for students involved in activities. With the suspicion-based program, a student who is suspected of drug or alcohol use is called into a meeting with one of four trained interventionists at Whitefish High School: the activities director, principal, school nurse and assistant principal.

If the interventionist, who has been trained to identify signs of intoxication, concludes that reasonable suspicion exists, then the student’s parents are asked if a drug test can be administered. If the parents refuse, then the student is automatically suspended for three days on first offense. A student who takes and fails the test enters counseling but is not suspended. Additional offenses result in suspensions.

“The big difference is that we wanted to change our student culture where it’s not OK to drink and it’s not OK to do drugs, but keep in mind the school cares about you,” House said.

House said he has heard little complaint over the policy, though the district’s random testing proposal last spring was met with considerable opposition. House said the school is still discussing that policy, but not actively pursuing it at this time. But other Montana schools are, following in the footsteps of schools around the country that have taken advantage of two significant U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that schools have the right to randomly test athletes, even if they are not suspected of drug or alcohol use. Then in 2002, the court expanded its language to include all voluntary activities like cheerleading, band and debate. Following those rulings, thousands of schools around the nation have implemented random testing for students in activities, often with the federal financial assistance.

Since 2003, the Department of Education has awarded $40 million in grants to implement or expand random testing policies in schools, and the Bush Administration has also set aside millions more for similar grants, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

This fall, Colstrip and Anaconda joined a short list of Montana schools that have random testing for students in extracurricular activities, while Butte has considered it. Anaconda’s Superintendent Tom Darnell worked previously in Missouri where he said many schools already have random testing. He believes the system is long overdue in Montana.

“In my opinion, there’s not a school district in the state that shouldn’t have this policy,” Darnell said. “There’s everything to gain from this and nothing to lose.”

Darnell conceded that the process is not cheap. Anaconda receives no federal grants and pays for the testing through its regular budget. And he said the policy has received some opposition, but countered: “The view point I take with parents is if your child is using drugs, why would you not want to know that?”

A first-time offender faces a 30-day suspension from activities, a second-time offender gets 40 days and then the third offense means expulsion from all activities.

“Third strike you’re out,” Darnell said. “You’re done forever at Anaconda High School.”

Colstrip has had a random testing policy for extracurricular activities since 2003, Superintendent Harry Cheff said, but the district switched from using saliva samples to urine samples for high school students this year. Middle schoolers still do the saliva test. Cheff said the urine sample is considerably more effective.

Cheff said several parents have expressed concern over the urine testing, but for the most part there has been little opposition. He noted that Colstrip is unique in that the major employers of the town are PPL Montana and Western Energy, which have mandatory drug testing policies. So the majority of the population, he said, is already accustomed to the process.

The district respects privacy issues, Cheff said. Only the superintendent’s office has access to the students’ records and law enforcement isn’t notified. Coaches are told of a kid’s drug or alcohol use only in the case of suspension. Administrative officials, including Cheff, also are tested.

“I feel it’s helped students from making unhealthy decisions,” Cheff said. “Because during the year there’s that chance that they’re going to be picked.”

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of random drug testing, local courts haven’t always been in agreement. A prominent example is Washington, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that random drug testing in schools isn’t allowed under the state’s constitution. Also, when Montana’s three Democratic candidates for attorney general held a forum in Kalispell in May, each candidate, including eventual winner Steve Bullock, expressed skepticism that such a policy would stand up in the state’s Supreme Court if challenged.

It remains to be seen when, and if, Whitefish will seriously consider random testing again, but discussion is sure to continue. Meanwhile, school officials in Colstrip are set to review its policy again in December, but Cheff is happy with how the program has worked so far.

“I’ll knock on wood, but as of today we haven’ been legally challenged on this,” Cheff said.