Drug tests deflect peer pressure at Southeast schools

'There is a lot of pressure to party, and this is an excuse not to'

Posted: Sunday, June 21, 2009

If drug testing at school districts around the region is succeeding in doing one thing, it's giving kids a reason to say no to drugs.

"It's an easy reason to say no," said recent Ketchikan High School graduate Erik Pihl. He played sports all four years at Kay-Hi, where random drug testing for student athletes started in 2000.

Pihl said it's been going on long enough in Ketchikan that there's not been an opportunity for drugs to take hold among athletes.

"Kids from the middle school know they'll be testing their freshman year," Pihl said. "They don't have the chance to pick up on drugs."

Testing at Ketchikan, Sitka and Wrangell high schools does not catch many kids because, proponents say, it works.

Though most coaches contacted for this story did not return calls, school administrators said testing has become accepted as routine. They did recall that parents initially had concerns about privacy, confidentiality, and the repercussions for failing a test, such as how many games someone would have to miss.

The Juneau School Board agreed last week to look into random drug testing for high school athletes at the urging of high school teachers, coaches and a group called Taking Action. The board's new task force is expected to use testing programs at other schools in the region as a model for Juneau.

Sitka Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said his district's program, in place since 2000, did not put a stop to kids' drug use, but accomplished what he hoped it would by helping kids deflect peer pressure.

"Especially the younger students, when they are freshmen and sophomores and are hitting the high school level, there is a lot of pressure to party, and this is an excuse not to party," Bradshaw said.

Wrangell, which began its program in 2003, and Sitka both purchase testing kits and administer them in-house. Wrangell spends about $1,500 a year testing and Sitka spent $1,000 this year testing about 180 students.

Ketchikan spends about $10,000 a year for testing through Tongass Substance Screening, but may transition to an in-house program come fall to save money, and allow quicker testing and results, said Lynn Wadley, activities coordinator for Kay-Hi.

Ketchikan and Wrangell both test weekly 10 percent of their students active in sports and activities, like drama. Sitka tests 5 percent of students active only in sports.

That works out to five to six students a week in Sitka and Wrangell and 15 or 20 a week in Ketchikan. In Sitka, two to four students test positive per year, or between 1 and 2 percent. That sounds consistent with Ketchikan, Wadley said.

A computer randomly picks students to be tested. Students don't know which day or what time testing will take place, but there's some concern about confidentiality since kids know who's getting tested because they've been called out of class. Then, if a student misses games, it may be assumed he or she failed the drug test.

The process of selecting names also has been called into question by parents, because while some students are never tested, others get called up two or three times in one year.

Basketball coach Eric Stolkhausen said that kids in Ketchikan take testing in stride. This year was his first coaching at the school.

"The first time I realized it was happening, the kids assured me they are used to it," Stolkhausen said. "They go get the test and move on. ... In my experience here, it's been a nonfactor or a positive thing, which are kind of the same thing."

Schools generally do a five-panel test that looks for cocaine, meth, opiates, antidepressants and marijuana. OxyContin, a prescription mediation whose abuse is being discussed as a major problem in Juneau, can be added to the panel as an independent opiate.

Most drugs stay in the body for 24 to 72 hours, though pot can be detected several weeks after its last use. The Ketchikan district also tests for nicotine.

Students legitimately taking antidepressants or pain medication can test positive and then must discuss their prescriptions. In Sitka, that discussion happens with the principal, who also administers the tests.

When Tongass Substance Screening manages the program, it acts as a private intermediary; a medical review officer speaks to the student after the test has been confirmed at a laboratory. If it's verified with a pharmacy and a doctor as a legitimate medical use, the result goes to the school as a negative, said CEO Renee Schofield.

Students and parents can ask for an independent laboratory test. But Wrangell Principal Monty Buness said almost every student who tests positive admits their involvement with drugs.

Students who fail a test are offered counseling and are punished, too.

The Sitka district reduced the severity of punishment this year to bring it more in line with the Alaska School Activities Association's tobacco, alcohol and controlled substance policy. Before, students were benched for the season on a first offense.

"We wanted to move to a more positive place," Principal Howard Wayne said. "We're seeing the value of activities for students and their motivation for staying in school. We felt the other policy was counterproductive."

ASAA's rules call for a suspension from activities for 10 days on the first offense, 45 days on the second offense and one calendar year on the third.

Suspension periods can be reduced if the student and parents complete an online educational component. On the fourth offense, a student can be banned from activities for the remainder of their high school career.

The Juneau School District is a member of ASAA. The organization's penalties on drug and alcohol use are minimums. Students testing positive for the first time in Sitka can still practice but are only eligible to play in half of the season's games.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of student athletes, but Buness said Wrangell parents didn't think it was fair to only test kids in sports. The school board decided to test everyone participating in activities. There are about 120 students at the school.

"We haven't had anyone challenge a result, no boisterous complaints, no students filing grievances," Buness said. "It's been a quiet and effective program."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at kim.marquis@juneauempire.com or 523-2279.

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