Pubdate: Sun, 29 Sep 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: National
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Author: Tamar Lewin


NEW BUFFALO, Mich. - In this serene lakeside town, a group has gathered at 
the high school each week since August to try to hammer out a consensus on 
drug testing in the schools: a pastor, a basketball coach, a sheriff, a 
social worker, a superintendent and assorted parents, teachers, students 
and school board members.

They have debated whether a first offense should bring counseling or 
punishment and whether they can best deter drug use through education or 
testing. They have studied the merits of urine, hair and saliva tests. But 
week after weary week, they have adjourned without agreement.

"It cuts deep down to how one sees the world, and people have different 
views," said Michael Lindley, the superintendent. "Some say it's invasive 
and you're assuming my child is guilty until proved otherwise. Others say 
if kids have nothing to hide, it's not invasive. We don't have a huge drug 
problem here but we don't want to have our heads in the sand."

Until last spring, when the United States Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that 
schools could conduct drug tests on students involved in extracurricular 
activities, the school board here had given the matter little thought. But 
now, here and in small towns across the nation, drug testing has become a 
hot issue. Rather than resolving the question, it seems, the court's 
decision has touched off a new round of passionate debate.

 From Glen Cove, N.Y., to Lockney, Tex., hundreds of school boards are now 
considering whether - and how - to use drug tests. The proposals they are 
considering range from voluntary programs offering incentives like discount 
coupons for students who agree to be tested, to, in a few places, testing 
all students.

Before the Supreme Court's decision, about 5 percent of the nation's public 
school districts conducted drug tests of student athletes - a practice that 
the court upheld in 1995. But many districts decided the legal parameters 
of testing were so uncertain that they should await further guidance before 
adopting a plan.

The new ruling opened the way for much wider testing of students. It upheld 
the Tecumseh, Okla., schools' policy that required random urine testing as 
a condition for participating in any extracurricular activity involving 
interscholastic competition, including sports teams, the chorus and the 
Future Homemakers of America. Lindsay Earls, the student who challenged the 
policy, said it violated her privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment's 
prohibition of unreasonable searches.

But the majority opinion, by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the search was 
entirely reasonable, given the nationwide epidemic of drug use by 
schoolchildren. By emphasizing the schools' "custodial responsibilities" 
for their students, the majority opinion seemed to point to judicial 
support for testing all students.

Most large urban districts have shown no interest in drug testing. But many 
smaller districts, especially in the South and Midwest, are very 
interested. The Tecumseh district has received a stream of calls from 
school districts that want copies of its drug-testing policy.

"It's stayed steady ever since the ruling," Danny Jacobs, Tecumseh's 
assistant superintendent, said recently. "I had two calls just this 
morning. I tell everybody to read the policy we've posted on the Web. Then 
they call back and ask how we started, and how we put it in place. It isn't 
letting up at all yet."

While the court ruling resolved some of the legal questions, it did nothing 
to end the controversy about whether drug testing programs make sense as 
educational policy.

Many health and education groups, from the National Education Association 
to the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose drug testing. Students 
involved in extracurricular activities, they argued in the Tecumseh case, 
are less likely than others to use drugs, so requiring drug tests as a 
condition of participation may scare students away from the very activities 
that help deter drug use.

The Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., that 
opposes drug testing, recently started a project to help parents and 
educators who want to resist school boards' efforts to begin drug testing.

But last month the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy began 
distributing a guide supporting drug testing in schools.

"Testing has been shown to be extremely effective at reducing drug use in 
schools and businesses," the government guide said. "As a deterrent, few 
methods work better or deliver cleaner results."

John Walters, director of the White House office, stresses that community 
debate is crucial in deciding whether to adopt random drug testing. "It's a 
very, very powerful tool," Mr. Walters said. "But it's not for everybody, 
and it's not a drop-in, add-water, solve-the-problem kind of tool. You need 
to have the local community work through the issue, talking to parents and 
kids and the people who do drug treatment."

To avoid all legal uncertainty, some districts are modeling their testing 
plans directly on the Tecumseh policy upheld by the court: Each month, a 
group of students in extracurricular activities is chosen, at random, to 
provide a urine sample. Those who test positive are initially sent for 
counseling and, in case of a second offense, suspended from extracurricular 

"I tell districts that if they adopt the same verbatim policy as Tecumseh, 
that would be safe," said Paul Lyle, a Plainview, Tex., lawyer who 
represents about 50 small West Texas districts. "But I tell them, if you 
change a comma, it could open the door to something. "

The Lockney district is one of his clients that has followed that advice. 
Previously, Lockney adopted random testing for all students, but when the 
American Civil Liberties Union challenged the policy, Lockney agreed to 
stop enforcing it.

But after the Supreme Court ruling, Lockney wanted to resume drug tests, 
and on Sept. 17, the school board voted unanimously to adopt the Tecumseh 

"We'll probably get 85 percent of the kids in extracurriculars," said 
Raymond Lusk, the superintendent. "I think it would be fairer to test 
everybody, because why are some kids more important than others? But we've 
seen how much litigation costs."

In Conway, Ark., where the school board last year approved random testing 
of students in extracurricular activities but suspended it until the 
Supreme Court ruling, the board voted again in August and deadlocked, 3-3, 
with one member out of town.

"When I got home, everywhere I went, people were coming up and saying, 
'This is something we really need,' " said Gary Greene, the absent member, 
who ultimately voted for the testing program. "I'd been leaning toward 
voting no, but I must have heard from 75 or 100 people who wanted it. I was 
just flabbergasted. I've been on the school board since 1988, and I've 
never seen this many people get so involved."

Others take a different approach: In Autauga County, Ala., students who 
join a voluntary drug testing program, and test negative, are given an 
identification card entitling them to discounts at dozens of local 
fast-food places and stores.

In New Buffalo, the school board was on the verge of adopting a policy in 
August, under which 10 students would be randomly selected, six times a 
year, for testing. But at the meeting where the policy was read, opposition 
prompted Dr. Lindley to create a task force - three supporters of drug 
testing, three opponents, and three who were undecided - to hold open 
meetings to gather community reaction and then to recommend a policy to the 
school board.

Some opponents quickly began circulating a petition against drug testing, 
at church picnics and Little League gatherings, collecting more than 200 
signatures. But the task force started from square one.

"We looked at the advantages and disadvantages of urine testing and hair 
testing," Dr. Lindley said. "I doubt that we'll get to saliva, because it 
just tells you about drug use in the previous day. If I had my druthers, 
we'd look at hair, which is more expensive, but lets you pick up drug 
residues from three months ago."

Here, as elsewhere, there has been a split between those, like Chuck Heit, 
the school board treasurer and former police chief, who thinks students who 
use drugs should be punished, and those - the majority here - who are more 
interested in arranging for counseling or treatment.

The task force found some common ground: everyone agreed that student use 
of drugs, alcohol and tobacco should be addressed; that education, 
deterrence and counseling should begin early; and that the policy should 
enhance the sense of community, not divide it.

"We're trying to be communitarian, and it's not a quick process," said the 
Rev. Brad Bartelmay, a local pastor. "The issue, not just for this 
community, but for the whole nation, is getting people to buy in to a 
common goal."

But whenever the talk turned to drug testing, there was nothing close to 
agreement, among students or adults. Recently, a survey by the local paper 
found the town evenly split on the issue. At the recent meeting there was a 
general feeling that the task force was getting nowhere.

"We all came out of that meeting thinking we'd taken a step backwards," 
said Traci Lauricella, a member of the school board. "It's not a good 
feeling to think you spent all these weeks and got nowhere. But we're 
meeting again Wednesday. I haven't given up hope, but I'm buckling my seat 
belt for a bumpy ride."
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