Spotlight

Altering Minds and Reality Through Drug Testing

by James T. Jeffers

Rather than being radical and polarizing, random student drug testing has been embraced by students, parents, teachers and others in our community of Tallassee, Ala., as an effective supplement to what we teach in the classroom.

Random student drug testing reinforces every other prevention program in our school by supporting the no-use standard with testing that is linked to nonpunitive consequences. Our experience shows that student drug testing does not put kids out of school or out of athletics and other extracurricular activities. It is the use of drugs and alcohol that does that.

Rather than invading students’ privacy and driving a wedge between students and adults, the drug testing has actually built trust based on verified test results. At our 612-student high school, the No. 1 issue facing today’s teens is substance abuse, including recreational drugs, marijuana, methamphetamine, steroids, over-the-counter medication, prescription drugs and, of course, tobacco and alcohol.

Negative Views
Tallassee City Schools began its random student drug testing program in 2002. At the time, we encountered a widely held perception among the stakeholders that a huge problem with drug use existed at our middle school and high school. To address the reality, I formed a committee to study the issue of student drug use in our school district and to develop an action plan to reduce the problem.

The committee consisted of school administrators, parents, athletic coaches, cheerleader sponsors, teachers, board of education members, city leaders, club sponsors, band personnel, a doctor, nurses, police and others. The 35 invited members began by looking at nationwide data regarding random student drug testing and the legal aspects of drug tests. The committee met once a month for the first four months of the year.

After examining the facts, the committee was convinced the Tallassee City Schools should implement random drug testing of our students to demonstrate to the public the seriousness of our actions. The next question was what should be in the policy. The committee turned to other schools in Alabama that already were randomly testing. We borrowed written policies from the Hoover, Ala., schools and the Hartselle, Ala., schools, two school systems that had won court approval in our state.

The committee adopted what we considered the best practices of the two policies and developed our own policy for Tallassee. The board of education passed it unanimously. When the proposed policy was introduced at two consecutive school board meetings, no one in the audience presented negative reactions either in written or oral form.

The new drug prevention policy was implemented in fall 2002 and was included in the Student Code of Conduct and Information Handbook, which is available to all stakeholders through the district’s website (www.tcschools.com).

The student drug testing program has been well received and universally supported in the community. The policy has not been challenged to date and no legal action has been threatened.
New Perceptions

Several measures have demonstrated the positive effects of the random student drug testing in our schools. The first and most important statistic is that since the first two years of drug testing, 7th and 8th graders have been testing clean. That alone has demonstrated the impact of the prevention program. Other collected data show a reduction in drug use of more than 30 percent during the past three years among students in grades 9-12. We have participated with the Institute of Behavior and Health, a federal contractor in Rockville, Md. (see resource box, page 35), and other school systems to gather long-term data on drug testing of students.

The most impressive measure of success is the perception that Tallassee City Schools is doing something effective to help students who test positive for drugs. The most significant benefit is the new perception that illegal use of drugs among our high school students is being reduced — a positive step no matter how small a decline and worth the cost of drug testing.

During the past two years, we’ve had no positive test results among our 7th and 8th graders and a general decline in usage among high school students.

In addition to the drug testing, the Tallassee City Schools also has participated in the national prevention education programs — Atlas for boys and Athena for girls who are involved in interscholastic athletics. These programs were implemented with a grant from the Institute of Behavior and Health in cooperation with the Oregon Health Services University.

These programs prepare peer teachers (usually sports coaches or club sponsors) to discuss all aspects of student health, including use of drugs and steroids and healthy eating. Students spend time in groups discussing the pressures they face each day and how to make healthy choices.

When the school district last winter had vacancies for athletic director and head football coach, the school board unanimously supported a search for an individual who would fully embrace random student drug testing in Tallassee.

For those of us in leadership, the random student drug testing is an expression of our concern for our students and our commitment to helping them grow up as drug-free, healthy and productive adults. The experience in Tallassee has been positive for our students, their families, our school and our community.

Jim Jeffers is superintendent of the Tallassee City Schools in Tallassee, Ala. E-mail: james.jeffers@tcschools.com