Empire editorial: Student drug testing a deterrent, not end-all solution

Posted: Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Juneau School District has been feeling pressure from parents, advocacy groups, and even some of its own staff to begin drug testing students involved in athletics and extra-curricular activities.

Some individuals, such as Juneau-Douglas head football coach Bill Chalmers, want to see testing implemented when the upcoming school year begins. But will rushing to install a drug testing program be productive for Juneau's two high schools? That will depend on what school officials hope to accomplish.

Though referred to by many as an epidemic, much remains unknown about the severity of drug abuse among Juneau's 1,800-plus high school students. Of the student body, anywhere from a quarter to a third are estimated to be involved in sports or extra-curricular activities. Drug testing may work as a deterrent for them, but the other 1,200-plus not involved in school activities will be relatively unaffected by any drug testing policy implemented.

So, will drug testing only students involved in school activities eradicate the problem? Not likely. Will such testing help identify how severe the problem is in our schools? Probably. Will it give some students, particularly athletes who have been fingered as OxyContin abusers by some of their coaches, a reason to quit or avoid drugs to begin with? Yes, in many cases it probably will.

The latter two reasons are enough, in our opinion, to warrant serious consideration of drug testing students. It's the expectations associated with drug testing a fraction of students that needs to be curbed. Drug testing in our high schools is neither a quick nor easy fix, and should not be viewed as such.

Sitka began drug testing student athletes in 2000, and Ketchikan followed up a year later with its own policy. Both have reported positive results since the testing began. That should offer hope here in Juneau that a similar program will produce similar results, but we can't forget that Juneau has a larger student body than Ketchikan and Sitka combined, meaning the problem here is probably on a much larger scale.

Drug testing also has to be about more than just catching students in the act. Any program implemented also needs to consider practical and affordable counseling and treatment options for the students and their families. Also yet to be decided is how the program will be paid for. Individual drug tests can cost from $35 to $75, and the school district isn't exactly swimming in money these days.

We encourage the school district to further investigate what a mandatory drug testing policy would look like, both financially and in practice. That doesn't mean other options - such as training teachers and staff to recognize signs of abuse, or pushing for JPD to obtain a drug-sniffing dog - should be placed on the back burner.

A combination of these things will have the most impact. Drug testing by itself isn't reason enough to start waiving "Mission Accomplished" banners from the rafters. But it will be another positive step in what no doubt will be Juneau's long, arduous battle against teenage drug abuse.

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