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Education Reporter

Schools Test More for Drugs, Alcohol
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Drug and alcohol testing at public schools is quietly spreading from after-school activities to the school day.

Breath analyzers have been used for years at proms and pep rallies at thousands of schools. Now, however, a few districts around the country have begun to test for alcohol during the regular school day.

Drug testing of students is also expanding from athletics to other extracurricular activities and even driver's ed classes. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 approved student drug testing as a condition to participation in extracurricular activities (Board of Education of Pottawatomie County v. Earls).

Privacy concerns 
Such testing programs tend to be controversial with parents, some of whom deem them an unwarranted invasion of privacy. However, school officials view substance abuse as a public health problem which they have a responsibility to minimize. Disciplinary action normally does not involve the police and sometimes involves counseling. President George W. Bush announced in his State of the Union address this year that he would seek $23 million to expand drug testing in public schools.

Schoolday alcohol testing currently occurs in the East Hampton school district on Long Island and in a district in Mishawaka, IN, and is planned in the Avon school district in central Connecticut. The East Hampton district reacted to incidents of students showing up in class drunk after lunch. Testing there is done by a trained staff member, not a police officer, and the penalty is suspension. (New York Times, 3-3-05)

Random drug testing for extracurricular activities is now permitted by Virginia state guidelines, and anti-drug activists are pushing Fairfax County's middle and high schools to implement it. But "there are many, many parents who consider this a major invasion of privacy," said Lynn Terhar, president of the county Council of Parent Teacher Associations. (connectionnewspapers.com, 8-19-04)

Parents 'in denial' 
"I don't believe in violating people's privacy unless there is reason to believe they have participated in illegal drug activity," Mount Vernon school board member Dan Storck told connectionnewspapers.com. Still, he acknowledged that "parents can be in denial about drug problems."

"Drugs are causing chaos in our schools," countered DeForest Rathbone, chairman of the Great Falls-based National Institute on Citizen Anti-Drug Policy. "It's disrupting the kids' education. And it's a major health and safety issue." He cited statistics indicating that 22,000 deaths a year result from drug abuse.

The Virginia guidelines allow a school to compel a student who tests positive into drug treatment and bar the student from extracurricular activities. Research on the effects of drug testing on drug use is mixed.

In James City, VA, a principal who describes himself as a civil libertarian is leading the charge for testing athletes for drugs this fall, and perhaps expanding the program after that. "I wouldn't favor this if I thought it [drugs] wasn't a real problem for the youth in this town," said Parke Land of Lafayette High. The program won't involve police and will keep test results private. Parents and students must sign a consent form before the students can try out for a team. (Virginia Gazette, 11-20-04)

In Alton, IL, school officials began testing students for alcohol before school dances, starting with the Christmas dance last December. Suspension and mandatory attendance in a student assistance program are the penalties. Some parents and students expressed outrage, but Alton High principal Phil Trapani said, "I have a difficult time understanding why any parent would be against this."

"I wonder if the school would get the blame if a carload of kids left the dance drunk and got in an accident? I'd get roasted," he told the Alton Telegraph (12-8-04).

Electronic tracking 
Concern for children's privacy centers on a different tactic in Brittan Elementary School in rural California: pupils are required to wear radio frequency identification badges that track their every move. The system was imposed by the school as a way to simplify taking attendance, reduce vandalism and improve student safety. Similar devices are used to monitor youngsters in some parts of Japan. (cbsnews.com, 2-9-05)

The American Civil Liberties Union generally opposes drug and alcohol testing of students as well as physical-monitoring systems.

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