School Board urged to OK drug testing

Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

High school cliques used to be made up of the "jocks" and the "druggies." The School Board heard Tuesday that in Juneau, the cliques are one in the same.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Drug use among local high school athletes has become such a problem that one coach said she is embarrassed to travel with her team. Another told the board to visit the local halfway house, "where a bunch of our previously star athletes now reside."

More than 100 people turned out for the meeting, and most of the 40-plus who spoke were in favor of a proposed mandatory drug testing program for high school student athletes. They implored the board to start testing immediately and worry about details later.

Many said mandatory testing would be the first step to fight teen OxyContin use in Juneau. They said the cost didn't matter and a potential legal challenge didn't matter; they said they wanted the district to do something to save children from addiction.

"We've seen lives devastated, families lives going upside down, people moving out of town," said Mitch Falk. "This isn't a solution to all the ills, it's just a step in the right direction. We have to say no and this is just a step to start."

The board is considering recommendations made by a Drug Testing Task Force that was formed in June, after the board was given a 1,200-signature petition asking for mandatory testing. Many who signed are district coaches.

This spring, Juneau-Douglas High School football coach Bill Chalmers threatened to quit if the board did not institute a drug testing program.

"My heart goes out to parents up here today talking about the pain they've gone through with their kids," Chalmers said Tuesday. "My heart goes out to those kids also because our culture let them down. If we had drug testing 10 years ago, there would have been 10 years of kids who said, wait a minute, there's something wrong with this because everyone else is saying no. But we didn't have it."

Nurse practitioner Matt Jones said he is more concerned now than ever before about drug use in Juneau. His office gets a call every day from a parent concerned about their child using drugs.

Jones said implementing a testing program now would change the culture, so that kids who are freshmen and sophomores could enter their last years of high school "without having 10 to 20 friends who have been sent off for treatment or are getting injections (for addiction treatment)."

The task force met every week for seven weeks to develop the 48-page document that recommends the board immediately implement testing for high school athletes. Tobacco and alcohol would be included.

The task force also recommended a voluntary program for all high schoolers and suggested education and community outreach, but proponents who spoke Tuesday did not try to hash out details. They focused on getting the board to say yes to testing athletes.

Laurie Berg is one parent concerned about details. She said Juneau lacks therapeutic programs to treat the addicted, she didn't know who would do substance abuse assessments on kids after they tested positive, and she is worried about a legal challenge over privacy rights. She also said proposed punishments for testing positive are too strong.

Others commented that drug testing would alienate teens rather than help them.

"I think we're sending the wrong message by looking at them with a wary eye," said Will Muldoon, who works at the Empire.

The school board is scheduled to consider the drug-testing proposal on Tuesday, and could take a vote on it then.

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