School Drug Tests on the Rise in NJ

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The Northern Valley Regional High School District's plan to launch random drug testing angered parents, who turned out en masse at a recent Board of Education meeting to question a measure being considered by more and more North Jersey schools in the face of a growing teenage drug scourge.

    Once reserved for elite athletes, drug testing is now employed by at least a dozen public high schools in North Jersey, including Waldwick, Fort Lee, Kinnelon, North Bergen and River Dell. Northern Valley Regional and West Milford are among those considering it. And in the past year, drug testing has begun moving into middle schools in New Jersey.

    Administrators in districts with random testing boast of a sharp decline in drug- and alcohol-related incidents among students. The results have assuaged some parents' initial fears that testing would be an invasion of privacy and do little to cut down on drug use.

    "Both of my boys have been tested and it's been OK,'' Adele Badalamenti told The Record. Her older son just graduated from Waldwick High School and whose younger son will be a senior in the fall.

    "If you are doing things for proactive reasons and to keep your children safe and alive, you have to think about what's real and right. Privacy is separate from keeping your child alive,'' she said.

    But the success stories aren't backed up by hard numbers, and forcing students who participate in extracurricular activities to provide urine, hair or blood samples for testing without prior suspicion that they are abusing drugs has outraged some parents and been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as an invasion of privacy.

    The constitutionality of random drug testing in schools is not in question. A series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court culminated in a 2002 decision in an Oklahoma case that said schools can legally require students participating in extracurricular activities, such as sports, cheerleading or choir, to submit to a drug test.

    The reasoning in tying drug testing to extracurricular activities is that those students are given an opportunity not available to all other students and have an obligation to follow the rules and not endanger themselves and others.

    Using student ID numbers, typically, a handful of students are chosen at random every week or month for testing. The most common test requires the student to provide a urine sample, the cheapest and most accurate test. Parents, students and school officials are notified of the results. If the sample comes back positive, the student is referred for counseling and his or her extracurricular activities are usually revoked. Repeat offenders can be suspended and required to get drug abuse treatment and prove they are clean before being allowed to return to school.

    Some districts remain skeptical about the benefits. Instead of drug testing, Tenafly has police conduct random searches through school hallways and classrooms using drug-sniffing dogs. ``It doesn't mean we have drug issues; it's an approach we decided to take,'' said Superintendent Lynn Trager. While the dogs found drugs at other schools, they found none in Tenafly schools, she said.

    Officials in districts that have had drug testing for several years say it discourages drug use because of the possibility of being caught and punished, and can be a deterrent to peer pressure.

    "It's an incentive for kids to resist peer pressure,'' said James McLaughlin, superintendent of in the West Milford district, which is likely to begin drug testing in December. "I think every school nationwide has to take on substance abuse as an issue,'' he said, adding West Milford parents generally have been supportive.

    Of the schools contacted about how many students are tested, how many tests were positive and for what drugs, only River Dell provided statistics to back up claims that drug testing discourages drug use.

    About 200 River Dell High School students are tested annually for drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, over-the-counter medication and alcohol. On average, four come up positive each year, said Assistant Principal Jeff Principe.

    "Usually we catch them for using marijuana,'' Principe said. "With drugs . they go to a counselor who determines the severity of their addiction.''

    Most who are caught are not first-time users, he said. "Hopefully, we get them the help they need.''

    Random drug testing has drawn mixed reviews from experts, who say the tests _ each costing between $15 and $35 _ may not be effective.

    "Schools have to invest an enormous amount of effort to do this right,'' said Dr. Sharon Levy, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She was the author of a report for the American Academy of Pediatrics on random drug testing in schools.

    "Is this really the best use of your resources? If you had the same amount of money, you could hire someone to work with kids who have substance abuse problems.''

    Cost isn't the only issue. At the recent Northern Valley Regional board meeting in Demarest, about 150 parents turned out to give officials an earful about what they saw as the district intruding on their children's privacy and their parental rights.

    Instead of cutting down on drug use, parents said, testing would discourage participation in sports and school clubs.

    The Closter Council unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Northern Valley Regional's drug testing plan after several residents whose children attend district schools denounced it at a recent council meeting.

    "We're voicing our displeasure,'' said Councilman John Glidden. "We have no control over what the school board does. But there are too many unanswered questions.''

    Among the outspoken critics was Cheryl Phillip, whose children attend district schools. Phillip and other parents said they have hired a lawyer who is looking into challenging what she termed the district's "draconian measure.''

    Jason Williamson, a staff attorney with the ACLU in New York, said he agrees with those parents who see testing students who aren't suspected of using drugs or alcohol as an invasion of privacy.

    "As a legal matter, the issue has been resolved,'' Williamson said. "Part of the rationale of testing kids in extracurricular activities was that these kids have diminished expectations of privacy by virtue of being in the care of the state while they are in the school building. "The law is clear, but that doesn't mean we agree with it as a policy matter.''

    Dr. Linn Goldberg, professor of medicine and head of the division of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, and the principal investigator of a study on random drug testing, found that the testing was not a deterrent.

    "You'd think that a school that prides itself on education would want to educate kids about drugs the right way,'' Goldberg said. ``Using scare tactics doesn't work. Having evidence-based programs that have been proven to reduce drug use, like Project Alert, Life Skills Training, Project Northland _ those programs educate kids in reducing drug use.  "So why would a school district pay much more money for a program without proven efficacy? To me, it smacks of being anti-education.''

    Supporters of random drug testing insist it has proven itself. Matthew Kranz, director of operations at Sport Safe testing service, which works with 85 schools nationwide and seven New Jersey schools, said the program works. He applauded New Jersey for being among the most aggressive in the nation in pursuing random drug testing.

    "Most schools when they are talking about drug testing get concerned about the legal aspect of it, but the schools in New Jersey feel a bit more confident about implementing a program than other states,'' said Kranz, who credited a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling upholding Hunterdon Central Regional High School's drug testing policy as a reasonable measure to combat drug abuse that did not violate constitutional rights.

    "The state Supreme Court ruling in New Jersey in 2003 put everyone at ease because their own state established that legal precedent,'' Kranz said. "When they see success in one school, more schools jump in. The ball is rolling a bit faster in New Jersey than in other states.''

    Fort Lee schools have had random drug testing for roughly five years. Students who participate in extracurricular activities must be prepared to be tested for narcotics, marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, said Superintendent Sharon Amato.

    "We believe it's a very successful way in which to prevent substance abuse and send a zero-tolerance message to students,'' she said.

    The ultimate goal of such programs is to help students make good choices, said Patrick Fletcher, River Dell Regional School District superintendent, where random drug testing has been done since 2007.

    "When you give a child a mechanism to say no to drugs because it would put me at risk for participating in my activity, it's easier for them to say no to drugs.''

    Waldwick schools had similar success, Superintendent Patricia Raupers said.

    "We had a decrease in incidents in drug and alcohol abuse,'' Raupers said. "Our students told us that we were giving them another reason to say no, that they could blame us. That was our intent.''