‘It’s a problem, but it’s a community problem; it’s not a school problem’
At the end of a two-hour long school board meeting last week, chair Wes Mills closed the door — for now — on random drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities.
He expressed the board’s consensus — that the issue of drug and alcohol use is a community problem, not one confined to the schools, and that drug testing may not be the best approach. This followed the comments of several parents and a 30-minute discussion among the school board members themselves as they grappled with the school system’s responsibility to address substance abuse among students.
Mills acknowledged the work of the school’s Youth Advocacy & Prevention (YAP) group in studying the issue of substance abuse in the schools and the possibility of instituting random drug testing.
Addressing RCPS Facilities Director Jimmy Swindler, head of YAP, Mills said, “Thank you for your work. We owe you a debt of gratitude for getting us this far … but perhaps we can take it further. [Drug and alcohol prevention] is outside the scope of the school, although we can play a part.”
The YAP group, which includes representatives from RCPS staff, law enforcement, social service agencies and parents, is tasked with finding ways to help students make positive choices regarding tobacco, alcohol and drug use and bullying.
It was an anticlimactic end to a study about the feasibility of drug testing that began with a PRIDE survey given to students in 2013, and culminated with a “town hall” information session May 4 at the high school auditorium attended by several dozen parents and students, as well as school board members and school staff.
“The thing that I can’t get past is that it’s a problem, but it’s a community problem; it’s not a school problem,” said Mills. “I want to send YAP away with the idea that could you consider the educational approach, what we can do to educate the families.
Stonewall-Hawthorne district board member Larry Grove agreed. “I would love to see us create parent groups to discuss drugs and alcohol,” he said, as part of a holistic approach to prevention. He described programs around the country in which law enforcement entities “engage parents of kids who are in trouble and ones who don’t want their kids to be in trouble to work towards a positive climate in the schools.”
Piedmont board member Aline Johnson reported that most of the constituents who contacted her were concerned that the effects and consequences of random drug testing had not been studied thoroughly enough. “I don’t think there was anybody who said no, let’s not do it,” she said. “They just thought that this wasn’t the time, that we just didn’t know enough about it.”
Chris Ubben of the Wakefield district appeared to be the only member on the school board to favor the drug testing program. “I heard from people in my district who wanted to know, ‘Why isn’t [drug testing] a good idea? Why aren’t we doing it?’ It’s something to offer the kids as a socially acceptable way to say no,” Ubben said.
Swindler opened the May 4 town hall by saying, “YAP has been meeting for several years now and we are meeting tonight at the direction of the school board. I will remind us that while we may differ in our approach, we all have the same overarching goal and that is to help the children of our community make good choices. Please let that common desire unite us as we in turn strive to make good choices for our kids.”
As part of his presentation, Swindler reviewed YAP’s findings and described drug testing efforts in a number of other Virginia school systems, including those that have instituted drug testing and those that have not. Marc Cole, director of student activities at Orange County Public Schools, was on hand to answer questions about the random testing program that has been underway in OCPS for three years.
Before turning the evening over to questions and comments from the audience, Swindler reminded attendees that no decision would be made at the town hall regarding the adoption of the YAP testing proposal, but that the school board would consider the proposal May 10. “If the school board wishes for YAP to move forward on this,” he said, “there are still many details to be worked out before anything can be implemented.”
Common themes arose from the questions and comments about the survey, drug use and testing methodologies.
• The testing process. Swindler and Cole described the process used by Trident, the company YAP was considering if drug testing was adopted. Kids selected for testing would administer the tests themselves using oral swabs. The swabs would be mailed to Trident.
• Why only kids in extracurricular activities are being targeted. “The truth is, if we could do it legally,” said Swindler, “I would propose random testing all of our students to give all of our students and parents an easy way to say ‘no’ and fight peer pressure. But we can’t. Legally, the Supreme Court has upheld testing of students in extracurricular activities only.”
• Cost. Swindler said that 10 percent of the kids in extracurricular activities would be randomly selected in a year. Given the number of kids in the school who are involved in sports, drama, Quiz Bowl and other competitive activities, he estimated that about 50 kids. Trident would charge $2,075 for that level of testing. Staff time, according to both Swindler and Cole, would be minimal.
“I can’t tell you where the $2,075 will come from, but I’m pretty confident that it isn’t going to come from another program that we are doing,” said Swindler.
Several attendees wanted to know where the money would come from, given that $50,000 had been cut from the school budget. In addition, some wanted to know if there would be money to provide counseling for kids who tested positive.
Swindler reiterated that not all details had been worked out and that the school board had not yet ruled on the proposal.
• Selection of students, notification of results and privacy. Trident would be given a list of student numbers without the corresponding names, said Swindler. Trident would randomly select 10 percent of the numbers and send that list back to the school. Those kids would be tested in private, most likely in the nurse’s office.
If a student tested positive, Trident would call that student’s parents. “No other kids would know who was tested and who tested positive unless the kids tell their friends,” said Swindler.”
• Positives for medications prescribed to a student. Trident tests for a wide range of substances, explained Swindler, including medications that students may be taking under a doctor’s order. When Trident calls the parent to report a positive result, “the first question they will ask,” said Swindler, “is, ‘Is your child taking a prescribed medication?’ ” If the answer is yes, he said, the result will not be recorded.
• The need for further study. Several members of the audience presented information gleaned online about the ineffectiveness of drug testing in identifying and preventing substance abuse. Others felt that a follow-up survey was necessary to confirm that there was more drug and alcohol use among students involved in extracurricular activity than the student body at large. Many asked for more details on the program as a whole.
This report was written with the help of video recordings of the meetings cited, so some speakers could not be identified. The videos by Kaitlin Struckmann/Rappahannock Record can be found online at youtube.com/watch?v=fFR7Zpbvy7o.