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County studying drug tests in schools

St. Petersburg Times | April 16 2005

BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County is poised to approve the only mandatory drug testing program for middle and high school students in the Tampa Bay area.

The proposal, which must be approved by the Hernando School Board, could require as many as 5,000 middle and high school students to submit to random drug and alcohol testing.

As many as 25 students could be tested randomly each month. The tests would be focused exclusively on students who take part in extracurricular activities or have parking privileges at schools.

"It's unfortunate," School Board member John Druzbick said of the plan for drug testing. "But it's something I think we need to do."

If the School Board approves the policy at a workshop on Tuesday, Hernando would become one of only a handful of school districts in Florida that conduct random drug testing of students.

The plan comes after two state reports in three years documented widespread drug and alcohol use among Hernando youth.

In 2002, the Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey found that Hernando students were at higher risk than in any other county for use of and addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs. Not much changed two years later, when the 2004 report was issued.

District staffers are largely targeting students who participate in extracurricular activities, in part because there is case law to justify their position, including a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The proposal prepared for board members also includes a quote noting that such students are "role models."

The drug testing could cost the district between $40,000 and $80,000 a year. Under the most expensive option proposed by administrators, three students would be selected every month from each of the county's four middle schools and four high schools to take drug and alcohol tests. The cost: about $80,000. Two other proposals put forward by district staffers vary in cost and scope, and one just would include testing of high school students.

District staffers have proposed penalties that stress rehabilitation for students who test positive. While students can be stripped of driving privileges to school or barred from all extracurricular activities for one year, they can also receive milder penalties - a 10-day suspension from extracurriculars and driving, for example - if they agree to enroll in a substance abuse awareness program.

The penalties grow harsher if students test positive more than once. Students who test positive three times could no longer reduce their suspension by enrolling in a substance abuse program. Any student who refuses to submit to testing would be presumed guilty.

"This program is not just punitive," said Shellie Lavore, a school social worker who helped draft the new policy. "We need to do some type of intervention."

Currently, Hernando school officials only require students who are suspected of drug or alcohol abuse to take tests. School officials also test students if parents make a request.

Lavore said school officials want to expand the policy to do more to aid at-risk youths.

Under the plan, students would have to pass both a saliva test for alcohol and a urine test that screens for all illicit drugs, including steroids.

The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the effectiveness and legalities of the Hernando proposal. Becky Steele, director of the ACLU's west-central Florida office, said studies have shown that districts with random drug testing do not do better in curbing drug use among youths.

Also, Steele said districts with random drug testing leave themselves open to litigation since legal issues surrounding testing are still being debated. She added that Hernando might be especially vulnerable since it would require drug tests of students with driving privileges as well as students who participate in extracurricular activities.

Other districts have required tests only of students engage in extracurricular activities, such as sports, band and drama. Steele said some students lapsed even deeper into drugs after being barred from activities.

"Most school districts that have done a cost-benefit analysis have found that this is not the way to go," Steele said.

Such arguments will be considered by board members as they decide the fates of students such as Abraham Rodriguez, 16, a varsity basketball player and junior at Springstead High School in Spring Hill.

Rodriguez said the environment in competitive sports sometimes causes athletes to cheat and use drugs, and he acknowledged that random testing might discourage some use.

But he also said he couldn't support a strict testing policy for middle and high school students.

"We're still too young," he said. "We're all kids and still in school."