Pop quiz? Group wants mandatory drug testing of students

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009

The perception of rampant teenage OxyContin abuse in Juneau is fomenting support for mandatory random drug testing of high school students in sports and activities.

A group calling itself Taking Action has formed and is pushing for drug testing in schools. Earlier this week, Juneau-Douglas High School football coach Bill Chalmers told the School Board that he was considering quitting coaching if the district doesn't implement a drug testing program by the fall.

Jeff Duvernay, a member of Taking Action and president of the local Little League, said a drug testing program would be a tool to help curb the rampant use of OxyContin among teenagers in Juneau. OxyContin is the name brand of an extended-release form of oxycodone, an opiate medication prescribed for pain.

"We all are of the opinion that we want a program that is not punitive in nature, meaning we're not looking to punish everybody," he said. "What we're looking for is ... to catch those that are using and identify them so they can get help, and ... provide some incentive for kids to not use. That's the most important thing."

The common thread among members of Taking Action is they all have a background in local athletics, Duvernay said. Members are concerned with what they believe is a growing problem, and say random drug testing will be a deterrent to help kids stay off of drugs.

"The teachers and coaches need these tools so they can weed out the users on their teams and get them help and get them off the team so they're not influencing other folks," he said.

The Sitka and Ketchikan school districts have implemented random drug testing programs so Juneau should do the same, Duvernay said.

"It has historical precedence," he said. "It's got precedence with the United States Supreme Court and it has been done in the state of Alaska, so we have state precedence as well."

Douglas Mertz, a lawyer with a background in civil liberties that is well known for defending former JDHS student Joseph Frederick in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" court case, said that schools have the legal right to drug test students that are involved in sports or extracurricular activities without any specific knowledge that a student is using drugs.

"Beyond that you can't do it, which really does tie the hands of the authorities," he said. "But it reflects the tensions that already exist between individual liberty and the need to do something effective about drug problems."

Mertz said it's not a matter of fairness, it's simply something schools have the option of doing.

School Board President Mark Choate said there are still many questions about how to implement such a program. He said the board first must get a feeling of what needs to be accomplished, decide how exactly the program would work, and figure out how to fund the drug testing.

"The best I can say is we have agreed to get the process going of evaluating it to determine whether or not it can be done, and if so how quickly," he said.

The School Board has only one more scheduled regular meeting before the school year ends and does not have regular meetings during the summer break. There are still some significant issues before the School Board, Choate said, like hiring a new superintendent and reviewing the budgeting process.

"Whatever we do it can't be a piecemeal solution," he said. "It has to be fairly broad. Obviously the desire is there to get something going, but again, how quickly we can do it I don't know."

Sandi Wagner, a coach and the athletics and activities director at JDHS, said this issue has been brought up before. A group came before the administration nearly 20 years ago to try and implement a drug testing program.

"They went in and got all the information, tried to figure out how to pay for it, and the superintendent's response was that if it 'infringes on people's rights, it's going no further.' And so it was dropped at that point," she said.

Wagner said there is a lot of support from coaches to implement a random drug testing program in the district. She personally supports the idea as well.

Wagner said she believes Juneau does have a drug and alcohol problem within the school district, and that randomly testing students would help curtail it.

"Do I believe that it would help? Yes," she said. "Both Ketchikan and Sitka have shown with their random drug testing, when they first started it they caught a lot of kids. Now the numbers have dropped drastically. It gives the kids a reason they can't use."

Wagner said a lot can be learned by participating in activities and sports.

"I think it's one of the best teaching tools that we have, but the idea is to keep our kids focused on positive things rather than negative things," she said. "If we have a majority of kids involved in athletics and activities using, then we are failing them and we need to figure out a way to change that."

Said Choate: "I'm a big supporter of activities in the sense that I think they attract kids to school, they help kids bond and I want the schools to work, but I don't want them to feel like prisons."

Duvernay said the group Taking Action wants a program to be implemented as soon as possible to prevent more kids' from getting hooked on drugs.

"It crosses all boundaries," he said. "It's the rich kids, it's the poor kids, it's the cool kids, it's the nerds - it's everybody. There is no one subgroup of these kids that is immune from this problem."

Choate said the OxyContin and other drug issues in Juneau are a school problem but also a community problem.

"Sometimes there is a tendency to sort of go, 'well if we just do X that will solve these problems,'" he said. "I think the alienation that leads kids to use drugs is kind of a community climate issue that we have to deal with in a broad variety of ways. I'm not at all opposed to random drug testing if that will be an effective way to help, but I think there's more to it than that."

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