Drug 'crisis' pushes board to OK testing

High school athletes in city to be randomly tested by November

Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Juneau School Board received a standing ovation and extended applause Tuesday after voting unanimously to approve drug testing in Juneau's high schools.

The vote came more than two and a half hours into a special meeting of the board, called to decide whether to pass a slate of recommendations made by a drug testing task force this month.

The meeting included an hour of public testimony that focused on the ills of OxyContin use among local teens.

Parents, students and former students testified that drug use is so rampant in town that it has become a health and safety crisis. The drug OxyContin is smoked and shot up in school, athletes are competing while high, and families are being emotionally and financially destroyed by rampant teen addiction, the board heard.

Board members listened to similar comments last week, when about 35 people spoke during more than three hours of testimony about the issue.

More than 100 people attended both meetings, and Tuesday's meeting was attended by many students.

Members of the Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team were among those who asked the board to implement drug testing.

"There's been kids on our team that can't focus to play a game without using the drug before it," one player said.

"It's not just drugs and sports," a second player added. "It's throughout the halls, the classrooms, it's everywhere and out on the streets."

Board members expressed regret that Juneau's teen drug problem had to reach "critical mass" before anyone took action against it.

"I feel that pain, and I'm sorry for that," Phyllis Carlson said.

President Mark Choate, a Juneau attorney, previously expressed concern about student drug testing violating state privacy laws, but said Tuesday he was swayed by public testimony.

The district received close to 1,000 e-mails from health care professionals, teachers and coaches, parents and many students - most of them saying drug use among teens is an emergency that requires attention, Choate said.

"We hear story after story of people coming in and saying they have no problem using drugs and being in sports, no problem using drugs and being in schools, no problem using drugs and hiding it from adults," Choate said. "What we've been doing is failing. We are failing as a community."

Choate said he did not see drug testing as a panacea, and urged the community to stay involved and help fix the problem.

"This is a health and safety issue that is a crisis," he said. "So I believe we have established a need to take action. The task force gives us a very large goal to accomplish that we can do, but only with active participation from the entire community. It will take all of us to do it."

The recommendations the School Board considered Tuesday were made by a task force formed this summer to write a plan for the district. It was formed after Taking Action presented a petition in June with more than 1,200 signatures asking for a mandatory drug testing program for athletes. The plan was supported by letters signed by a majority of the district's coaches.

The task force came up with a three-pronged approach to addressing drugs in high schools: Immediately start testing athletes for illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco; offer a voluntary program for all students that would be awards-based and help change the school culture; and start education and outreach for students and the larger community.

The Board on Tuesday approved all of the recommendations and directed the Juneau School District to begin by starting up a mandatory testing program for athletes.

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said the staff could do that by the beginning of the winter sports season, which starts Nov. 30. Parents and players will have to sign a consent form that allows the district to randomly test players.

The voluntary program and educational components will be worked out in the meantime, Gelbrich said.

The district also was instructed to work out details, such as who would do the testing, how much it would cost and punishments for those who fail a test.

Board members appeared to support maintaining the district's policies on punishments for drug use among athletes, which include a student being expelled from a sports season on a first offense. They asked the district to review the policy but did not take a vote.

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

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