Duluth schools weigh random tests for drugs, alcohol

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2014 - 10:39 PM

Duluth district’s plan to check for drugs and alcohol follows Superior’s lead.

Duluth school officials are considering random drug testing of some high school students to help curb abuse and get help for kids who need it. If the district adopts the proposal, it would be the first in Minnesota to do so.

“It’s an ongoing concern,” Ron Lake, the district’s climate coordinator, said about drug abuse. “And we’d like to add one more tool to what we’re doing.”

A small number of school districts across the country do so-called “suspicionless drug testing,” despite concern from parents and others who argue that it violates students’ civil rights and fuels an atmosphere of mistrust.

Then there’s the question of whether it works. This week, a national study found drug testing to have no effect on students’ drug use. But a positive school environment? That cut down on the share of students who started smoking cigarettes and using marijuana, according to research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

If Duluth decides it’s a good idea, it could start the random testing for drugs — including alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana — in 2015-16, at the earliest. “We’re a ways out,” Lake said.

If Duluth goes forward, the random testing would target high school students who play sports, join clubs or park in the school lot.

That’s because federal courts have condoned drug testing students who participate in voluntary activities. But some argue that the young people in after-school activities are less likely to do drugs.

“It’s sort of an irony that the courts allowed schools to do randomized testing for the kids who are less likely to be using the drugs,” said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Duluth has been inspired by its Wisconsin neighbor, Superior, where students have been randomly drug tested since 2006. The district had seen a surge in the number of students expelled for having drugs in school, said Janna Stevens, administrator of Superior’s schools. Officials were concerned so a group studied what could be done, she said. “The truth is, we had very little resistance.”

More than half of the high school’s 1,400 students — those who do co-curricular activities, including playing sports, parking in the school lot or taking a pledge not to use illegal drugs — have an assigned number for the weekly, random drawings. It’s not mandatory, Stevens said. But to participate in those activities, a student and parent consent form is required. Du­luth’s proposal, so far, is similar.

‘An excuse to say no’

Students appreciate having the rules, Stevens said. “What we’ve found is kids can use this as an excuse to say no, and that’s fine with me.”

Opponents point out possible unintended consequences, such as steering students to harder drugs that leave the body quickly.

And such tests discourage students from participating in sports or clubs that might keep them in school, said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, which opposes random testing. “For every one of those kids who disenfranchise from school, that’s a huge educational price.”

A study of 361 teenagers published this week found that those attending schools with drug testing were equally likely to try marijuana, alcohol or cigarettes as students at schools without drug testing policies. Meanwhile, students who felt their school had a positive environment were 20 percent less likely to report trying marijuana and 15 percent less likely to start smoking than students who believe their environment was not positive.

Neither testing nor environment affected the share of students who tried drinking, though.

“Drug testing doesn’t really work,” said Romer, the study’s co-author. He believes that instead, districts ought to invest in creating better school cultures and strengthening relationships between teachers and students, among other things.

“If they have a pretty good school climate, we know from our research and other research that they’ll have less of a drug problem,” he said. “And then they won’t have to do the invasion of privacy and all the other issues that go along with testing kids for no reason.”

Duluth schools are highly invested in creating positive climates, said Lake, the climate coordinator. “Some of our schools have 10, 15 years invested in responsive classrooms and many other programs.”

Drug testing could amplify those efforts, he said. “I would suggest that maybe it doesn’t need to be an either/or.”

Concern for the cost

Erica Thompson, whose 17-year-old son plays hockey for Denfeld High School, supports random tests.

“It’s taking rights away from the kids, but if they’re under 18 and they belong to a team, they should be following the rules of a team,” she said. “I think anybody that is supposed to be representing a school should represent that school as best they can.”

But she worries about who might bear the cost of such a program. “We struggle right now to keep our athletic programs afloat.”

Duluth estimates that the tests could cost $5,040 a year, but officials don’t yet know how much it would cost to run the program. The Superior district spent $30,000 last year on its random drug testing.

Under a new policy, students who tested positive for drugs would be subject to the consequences outlined in the code of conduct or the Minnesota State High School League, according to a memo reviewed by a Duluth school board committee Tuesday. Superior connects those students with the resources they need to get better, Stevens said.

“Whether it’s something to do with drugs, academics or any other area, our job is to take good care of these kids,” she said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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