Empire editorial: Schools' drug problem needs attention now

School board should adopt drug testing policy

Posted: Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Juneau School Board next week will began contemplating perhaps the biggest decision it's ever faced: If, and how, to implement drug testing in the district's high schools. We'll soon see if board members make the right decision or the easy one, which would be to do nothing at all.

The push for student drug testing has received overwelming support from parents, teachers and coaches who want to see a program implemented immediately. More than 1,200 community members signed a petition presented to the school board demanding such. Despite the rally cry, fears of an impending lawsuit over students' right to privacy will likely put some board members on edge.

But now is not the time to be timid. Juneau's OxyContin problem has reached epidemic proportions, and some measure of prevention must be taken. We already know the result of inaction: increased drug use.

Students are now avoiding competitive sports altogether because they don't want to practice against athletes abusing drugs, and one coach has pledged to resign if something isn't done. Surrounding communities also are becoming reluctant to house their players with Juneau athletes during road games because they're concerned our athletes' drug culture will spread to theirs, coaches have said. Theft of personal property is another concern.

Ironically, high school coaches, whose rosters could be decimated by positive test results, are among the loudest proponents to begin testing. Several this week told the Juneau Empire they didn't care how many students-athletes are booted off their teams as a result.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 decided that implementing random student drug testing programs is within a school's right. Since then, school districts nationwide have begun adopting programs similar to the one Juneau's task force has drafted.

Drug testing programs in Wrangell, Sitka and Ketchikan have been lauded by officials in those districts as giving students a way to escape peer pressure to do drugs. The same would prove true here in Juneau.

The local program, if adopted in its entirety, would:

• Test 10 percent of high school athletes in an active sports season each week through a random lottery.

• Require students and a parent or guardian to sign a consent form allowing the district to conduct the test.

• Include a voluntary program for students outside of competitive athletics.

• Increase drug education and prevention training in schools.

• Incorporate a faculty and community education component.

But the proposal isn't an all-or-nothing affair. The school board can adopt some of the components now and then add more to it later.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska wrote a letter to the task force developing the drug testing policy, saying it violates several provisions of the Alaska Constitution. We disagree, however.

Though testing of student-athletes would be mandatory, competitive athletics are voluntary and always have been. If anything, the testing will further prepare students for the real world. Many employers here in Juneau - including the Empire and its parent company, Morris Communications - require passing a pre-employment drug screen. If high schoolers can't pass a drug test now there's little hope for them in the workforce beyond graduation.

When school board members begin contemplating the 65-page proposal to be presented Tuesday, they must remember that playing high school athletics is a privilege and not a right. They also should keep in mind that how they vote in the coming weeks will likely affect how residents vote in the upcoming school board election.

The community has spoken and now school board members need to deliver. If not, they should be ready to present an alternative plan. Sitting idly by is no longer an option and to do such will mean the Juneau School Board has become part of the problem it is supposed to be solving.

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