By Jeff Poole
Children take all kinds of tests in school. Monday night, the Orange County School Board implemented a new test it hopes will help students make better choices outside of school.
With a 4-1 vote, the school board adopted a random drug screen policy for students participating in competitive extra-curricular activities.
A committee of parents, students, coaches and administrators developed the policy in response to data collected from a recent student survey that showed an alarming number of students reported using illegal drugs and alcohol.
Hoping to help children make better choices rather than punish them for bad behavior the committee developed the random drug test policy in an effort to deter illegal drug usage among middle and high-school students and offer intervention and education for those who fail the test.
“This policy was written with one thought in mind: what’s best for our kids?” Orange County Public Schools Director of Student Services Eugene Kotulka said. “The problem is our children are developing dangerous habits for later in life and the sooner we can provide intervention, the better.”
The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled school divisions could randomly screen student-athletes in 1995 and expanded that authority in 2002 to include any student participating in extra-curricular activities.
Under Orange County’s policy, 10 percent of the schools’ 1,500 students who participate in competitive extra-curricular activities would be selected at random for screening. School board chair Judy Carter suggested the board would review the policy next summer and consider whether or not to include all extra-curricular activities.
Under the current plan, students who play high school or middle school sports, participate in marching band and any other competitive extra-curricular organization can be tested.
While the committee and board members had been gathering input during the last few weeks, the board held a formal public comment session on the topic at its meeting Monday night. A handful of parents spoke.
Bette Winter, who is running unopposed for the District 4 School Board seat this fall, said she was in favor of the policy because, “In the real world there is accountability for the choices you make. Kids need to be more accountable for their actions.”
Caroline Marrs commended the board for considering the problem in an attempt to combat a problem rooted in society. She said the at-risk behavior study data was valuable, but wondered if students were entirely honest in answering questions about drug use. Still, she said the policy was a good starting point and “It would be nice to be able to turn this [trend] around.”
Kim Hoosier, though, expressed a range of concerns about the policy, ranging from the data collected to the cost of the program and the constitutionality of it.
She suggested adolescents polled may have answered the questions the way they thought they were expected to and said national drug testing data shows such programs are ineffective. And, as someone who rallies in favor of the school’s budget annually, she said she was disappointed from a taxpayer’s standpoint that the schools would choose to spend funds on random drug testing (approximately $7,500).
She also suggested it could affect student participation in extra-curricular activities for fear of being singled out, having the information leaked or other traumatic circumstances.
Lastly, she said the policy represented a “slippery slope” to presumed innocence and unreasonable searches and seizure.
The most strident objection came from District 5 School Board Member Jim Hopkins, who couldn’t reconcile the differences between the schools’ existing drug policy and the proposed random testing policy.
For students who test positive under the proposed random drug screening process, the focus will mainly be on education and prevention. For the first positive test, a student will be suspended from 20 percent of their contests, so an athlete, for example, would miss 20 percent of their team’s games. The student would also be placed into an education program regarding substance abuse with parental participation as well. A student who tests positive a second time would miss 50 percent of their contests and go through an even more intense education program. A third positive test would mean a 365-day suspension from activities and another substance abuse prevention program and a failed fourth test would suspend the student from participating in activities for the remainder of his or her school career.
Under the drugs in school policy, a student can be screened only if administrators have a reasonable suspicion that a student may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A positive screening under that policy can carry a range of disciplinary actions including a 10-day suspension, enrollment in a drug counseling program, suspension from all extracurricular activities and periodic drug screenings for the remainder of a student’s Orange County academic career. Subsequent offenses carry ever harsher penalties including suspension for up to 365 days.
Under the new random testing program, students selected will be tested for alcohol, marijuana, synthetic marijuana, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamines, anabolic steroids, PCP, Ecstasy and/or any other substance defined as a “controlled substance” by either Virginia or Federal law.
“The results of a positive drug screen are a real problem for me—not how we got there,” Hopkins said. “The results are handled differently and I can’t justify that.”
Essentially, he argued a student who fails a drug test administered on school property—whether random or not—should be treated similarly.
In an attempt to clarify the issue, Orange County Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Bob Grimesey noted that a student participating in extra-curricular activities exhibiting signs of being under the influence would be treated the same way as if he or she had behaved the same way in the classroom.
“There’s no free pass for athletes here,” he said. “Athletes and artists participating in extra-curricular activities will be held to a higher standard with the random drug test.”
“If this passes, we’ll have two policies—one which is non-punitive and the other is the most punitive as the law in Virginia will allow,” Hopkins reasoned. “A positive test is just that. How we get there doesn’t make any difference.”
District 4 School Board Member Jerry Bledsoe disagreed and said the random testing policy doesn’t contradict the existing drug in schools policy, but instead enhances it.
“This policy is as punitive as we’re allowed to do. We’re not choosing to do less, we’re choosing to do what we can do,” he said.
“Kids are out on a Saturday night and they’re faced with choices,” Bledsoe continued. “They’ll be okay when they’re in school on Monday, but they know they may fail a random drug test on Monday and that there will be consequences. This may deter them from making those bad decisions Saturday night.”
“I think society has a drug problem and I can only do so much with society,” Carter said, “but on the school board, I can do something for students.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to sway Hopkins who cast the lone dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision.
While fall sports began tryouts and practices Monday, Grimesey said student and parental consent in the new testing program will be a condition of continued participation. The school’s activities department is expected to review the policy (and others)Wednesday at an annual pre-season parents’ meeting.
In the meantime, Grimesey said, the schools will work with a third-party vendor to determine a testing schedule.
“Our student competitors should know if they’ve been doing illegal drugs and alcohol, now is the time to stop,” Grimesey added.
Regardless of what happens next, Grimesey said he already believes the random drug testing policy already is having a positive impact. People in the community are talking about the issue and more importantly, children and parents are discussing it.
“Any time you do anything that gets parents and children talking about healthy lifestyles and good choices, you’re succeeding,” he said.