Maize schools to re-evaluate cost, benefits of student drug testing

01/05/2013 4:50 PM

01/05/2013 4:50 PM

Maize school district leaders soon may reconsider a five-year-old policy that requires students who participate in extracurricular activities to agree to random drug tests.

“The idea is to look at the numbers and re-evaluate and see if that’s still the direction we want to go,” said Karen McDermott, spokeswoman for the district.

Maize is one of several Kansas districts that randomly drug-test some students. Under the policy, any student in seventh grade or higher must agree to a possible test if they want to participate in school-sponsored activities, including sports, band, school dances, graduation ceremonies and even parking in the school lot.

Derby, Wellington and El Dorado have similar policies.

Last week, Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., a private Jesuit preparatory school for boys, announced that it would begin testing every student for drug and alcohol use at least once a year, sparking renewed debate over drug testing in schools.

Public schools’ drug-testing policies are restricted by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But Supreme Court decisions have upheld public school policies that administer drug tests in limited ways, such as on students participating in extracurricular activities. The court also allowed for testing of students for whom there is a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use.

But private schools such as Rockhurst can test all students, just as private businesses can test prospective or current employees.

Organizations that oppose random drug testing of students argue that the policies are costly and do little to prevent drug use. Some also worry that the threat of tests could deter some students from participating in school activities, which often is tied to student success.

Supporters, including those who lobbied for the policies in Maize and Derby, say the rules give kids an out from the peer pressure to experiment with drugs or alcohol and can identify young people who have a drug problem and get them help.

The cost of testing

The Maize district has spent more than $31,000 over the past five years on drug testing, conducting an average of 35 to 40 tests a month. During that time, four students tested positive.

“That’s something that we grapple with: Has it been effective, and that’s why we’re not seeing more positives?” McDermott said. “And what’s going to happen if we take drug testing off the table?

“Our administration and (school) board will have those discussions here in the upcoming months.”

Shelia Rathbun, director of secondary education for Maize schools, recently completed her doctoral dissertation about random drug testing, interviewing students at Maize South High School and elsewhere to get their perspectives on the policy. Rathbun, a former principal at Maize South, was an assistant principal when the policy went into effect in 2007.

She said most students she spoke with said they think the money spent on drug tests could be better spent elsewhere.

“They mention the field trips and other things that have been cut, and I guess I feel in some ways like they do,” Rathbun said. “Can’t we be using that money in other ways?”

The Maize school board likely will get an update on the drug-testing policy at its meeting Jan. 14. It’s unclear whether members will take action.

Nancy Hughbanks, Maize school board president, said she doesn’t know how she feels about the policy until she gets more information and hears from the public.

“I would really need to see the numbers to see how successful it has been,” she said. “I want to know some of the costs and have a look at all the pros and cons of it.

“I think there are a lot of things we have done that have helped” with drug and alcohol abuse prevention, she said. “But is it all from that (policy)? I couldn’t tell you.”

At the start of each school year, Maize parents and students are asked to sign a form agreeing to the confidential tests.

Students who test positive for drugs or alcohol aren’t allowed to participate in extracurricular activities for at least a month and are subject to additional testing at the student’s cost. They also must go through an assessment program paid for by their parents to determine the extent of drug or alcohol use.

Derby’s experience

The Derby school district launched its drug-testing program in the fall of 2011. Of the 63 high school students tested randomly last school year, two tested positive for marijuana, said Derby High School principal Tim Hamblin.

Hamblin said he doesn’t think drug and alcohol abuse is a particularly serious problem at the school.

“I don’t believe that we’re way out of line with any other high school of our size and demographic,” he said.

But he thinks the policy works as a deterrent among students who participate in school activities.

“It does give them at least a pause” when considering whether to use drugs or alcohol, he said. “That can be a good thing. … As far as the student body, there’s been virtually no opposition to it at all.”

But unlike the Maize drug-testing program, which is paid for out of the school district’s general fund, Derby’s program is funded by the city of Derby as part of its drug and alcohol prevention efforts. The money comes from local liquor taxes.

If Derby’s came out of the school’s general fund – about $32 per test according to the contract negotiated in 2011 – “I might feel differently,” Hamblin said.

“If I had to choose between hiring another teacher and drug testing, I would probably really have to think about it.”

Derby and Maize officials said they didn’t think the policy had affected participation rates for extracurricular activities.

Wichita policy

Wichita schools do not conduct random drug testing, and there hasn’t been a push for the measure “that I’m aware of,” said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

Wichita Catholic schools do not drug-test students either, said spokeswoman Amy Pavlacka. High schools occasionally use breathalyzers at events such as proms or football games to check whether students have been drinking.

Arensman said Wichita’s policy is for teachers and principals to watch student behavior and suggest to a family that a student be tested. Students caught bringing drugs or alcohol to school are suspended or expelled, depending on the severity.

Rockhurst

Rockhurst officials said they weren’t aware of any other Kansas City-area schools that test all of their students. The nearest model they found was Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, an all-male religious private school that has been testing its students for six years.

That school has used the testing company Rockhurst will use, Psychemedics, to take hair samples from students to detect drug use and evidence of binge drinking. Families pay an annual fee of $60 per student to cover the costs.

Rockhurst principal Greg Harkness said Rockhurst’s costs would be similar and that the fees would be covered under the existing fee structure for families. According to its website, Rockhurst’s tuition is $11,100 for the current school year.

Contributing: The Kansas City Star.

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