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Athletes' drug tests all clean

Negative test results for all 25 high school student-athletes so far

Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2009

Though implementation of the Juneau School District's new mandatory random drug testing program has faced hurdles, the 25 high school athletes tested so far have cleared the biggest one.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Testing started Nov. 9. Of the 25 total students tested, seven were at Thunder Mountain High School and 18 at Juneau-Douglas High School. All tested negative.

"So far, so good. It's not that big a deal. We're expecting it. ... Players just know that and keep their nose clean," said JDHS senior hockey player Nick Mow, after a recent early morning practice.

Mow, who has been tested, said the process itself was easy. "They explain everything in detail," he said.

Zane Chatman, also a senior hockey player who was tested, said he'd like to see implementation tweaked.

"They don't really keep it secretive like they're supposed to. They come in and tell your teacher kind of, and they make it pretty obvious you're going to get tested," he said.

The school administrator in charge of the program calls parents letting them know their child has been pulled for testing. Chatman said he'd like that call to be followed up with a call letting them know the result was negative. "My mom was kind of freaking out," he said.

The lack of a follow-up call from school administrators is due to confidentiality concerns; while administrators may know a student has been tested, they do not learn the results of the in-school rapid test, said JDHS assistant principal Paula Casperson, who oversees testing at JDHS.

The phone calls are meant to encourage conversation between students and parents.

Casperson said implementation has gone "really well."

Rhonda Hickok, activities director at Thunder Mountain, oversees testing there. She said there have been a few hurdles.

"Kids have been having a hard time peeing on demand," Hickok said. "Not all kids have to go to the bathroom when you pull them out."

Kids facing that particular hurdle are given some water - not too much, so as not to dilute the results - and told to come back when they have to go, she said.

"It takes time, we're finding. It's not just lining the kids up," she said.

"It's the first time around implementing a program they're not used to. They're nervous," said Tongass Substance Screening employee André Lawrence, who does the testing at both schools.

Also, drug testers have twice shown up at a school on Friday when students were out of town for games, meaning they have to conduct make-up testing the following week.

The process itself involves a saliva test and a rapid results urine test. The saliva test is for alcohol. The urine test is for tobacco, marijuana, oxycodone, cocaine, opiates, methamphetamines and benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, Valium and Adavan.

Each week, 15 percent of each team is randomly selected and tested. This season that includes hockey, dance drill, basketball and cheerleading. Not all have been tested, as not all seasons have begun.

Hockey coach Dave McKenna said with hockey practice at 6:30 a.m. two days a week, "We'd know it if somebody was abusing themselves chemically."

"I didn't expect it to have a big effect on us," he said. "You just can't do it if you're not behaving yourself."

Probably the biggest impact on him as a coach has been more paperwork, he said.

Hickok said feedback on the process from parents and students has so far been positive.

Testing 'positive'

If a student tests positive on the in-school rapid test, parents would then be notified by a medical review officer at the lab where the sample will be tested again and confirmed. If the lab confirms the positive result, parents would then have the opportunity to explain a prescription or other possible reason a student who doesn't abuse drugs might test positive.

After that, if the test still found positive results not explained by a prescription, parents could opt to pay for an additional test. If that sample ended up negative, the district would cover that cost.

If the test result still turns up positive, the student would be suspended from sports for the remainder of the season and from other school activities for 10 calendar days for the first offense, 45 days for the second, a calendar year for the third and suspension from all school activities for the remainder of a student's high school career after the fourth, as mandated by the Alaska School Activities Association. The rapid test given to students provides instant results and is 99 percent accurate, said Tongass employee Pam Nelson.

Testing the atmosphere

Drug testing itself seems destined to remain without consensus, with some parents and students expressing support for it, and others pointing to potential problems.

"It's a good idea. Athletes should be held to a higher standard," said Mow, a senior hockey player.

Senior hockey player Nick Rutecki, however, said he believes if students are going to experiment, it's better to do it in a setting with parents around than in college.

"I think it helps eliminate the drug problem," added sophomore hockey player Zach Bicknell.

During the School Board's debates on the topics last year, many students, coaches and parents expressed support for testing.

But during the somewhat sparsely attended parent information session meeting last Tuesday, a few parents expressed concern with the fact their children were missing class time to get tested.

Some discussion at the parent-administrator meeting centered around whether students should be pulled out of class for testing, as they are now, or out of after-school activities.

Those parents also expressed concerns about privacy and potential loss of dignity.

"Everybody assumes you have something to hide, but we forget that kids have pride too," said one parent at Tuesday's meeting.

Rutecki also said JDHS is "way more of a drug-free school as of now." Many of the students abusing Oxycodone got caught and stopped, graduated or no longer attend JDHS, he said.

Casperson, the JDHS assistant principal, said this kind of data would be difficult to track, since suspicion-based referrals can be as informal as a phone call from a concerned teacher to a parent. Anecdotally, she said the number of suspicion-based referrals seemed about the same.

Future feedback

The school district will track test result data, however. Hickok said school administrators will be submitting monthly results, with number of total tests and number of positive results, to Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich.

She expects the first full round of those to be ready Monday.

The district also plans to hold public forums, such as the parent information sessions of last week, every three months in addition to special information sessions for students and staff.

Temporary coordinator Jenny Lefing said voluntary testing is slated to begin at the end of January. Costs for this program have not yet been estimated.

The voluntary testing program would offer incentives like discounts at different local businesses to students for participating. Test results would only be known by the student, his or her parents and the testing agency.

In speaking about the testing program, "We try to make the point we have an epidemic in our community, and it has filtered to our kids," Hickok said. "We hope this helps kids that are on the fence. ... We want them to know from the start what good, healthy decisions can do."

"As with anything new there are always going to be procedural pieces to work through," Casperson said. "It probably took a lot longer for week one than week two. This is something that's now a part of our school system, and as it becomes more systematic, there will be less trepidation about the whole process."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.



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