Positives and negatives

T.C. Roberson High School plans to continue its drug-testing program for a second year. So far, however, no other Buncombe County school is following suit.

Roberson implemented a pilot program last year that randomly tested students involved in extracurricular activities. Constitutional issues prohibit mandatory testing of the entire student body, because they are required by law to be there. But a 2002 Supreme Court decision upheld testing students who choose to take part in school sports or other after-school activities.

During the 2004-05 school year, Roberson’s pilot program screened 175 of the school’s 1,400 students; none tested positive for drug use, Principal Rob Weinkle reports. Calling the program a success, Weinkle recommended in May that it be continued.

Assistant Superintendent Tony Baldwin, however, sounded a note of caution. “We’re still going to have to look at a couple of more years” to get solid statistics, he said. “There would be a danger in looking at one year to the next.” Although drug violations at the school are down from 12 in the 2003-04 school year to just three in 2004-05, Baldwin said several years’ worth of data is needed before the program’s true value can be assessed.

T.C. Roberson has about 800 student athletes, and nearly 200 students are involved in other after-school groups. Despite the testing, the number of students taking part in such activities continues to increase, noted Weinkle.

Each week, Keystone Drug Testing Labs of Asheville randomly selects anywhere from five to eight students, who submit saliva samples. The tests cost $10 apiece, according to Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson.

Any positive test results would be sent to the school system’s director of student services, Sonia Logan. For a first offense, only the student’s parents would be notified; it would be up to them to determine any disciplinary action, Dodson explained. The superintendent’s son, who plays football, was one of those chosen this past year. “If he had tested positive, the school would be the least of his problems,” said Dodson, who feels discipline should be left up to parents.

Students who tested positive a second time would be barred from extracurricular activities. But students with one positive test are not automatically subject to closer scrutiny, said Dodson.

Weinkle, both of whose daughters were selected for drug testing, also called the program a success, arguing that the mere threat of potential testing serves as a deterrent to drug use. “Students know what is at stake and what the consequences are if they test positive,” he said. “I think it has a positive effect.” The drug-testing program, noted Weinkle, has won support from the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization, the Parents’ Advisory Council and various booster clubs.

PTSO President Kathy Eaton agrees. “I don’t know a parent who doesn’t support this,” she said. “This makes kids think before making a poor choice.” Eaton’s daughter is a senior at the school.

School board member Diane Shepherd, who represents the Roberson District, also supports the testing. “I think it’s been a success,” she said. “From most of the parents I’ve talked to, they think it’s successful too.”

“A terrible thing”

Former Principal George Drake, who retired from T.C. Roberson at the end of the 2003-04 school year, was the first to push for drug testing. According to the minutes of the March 2004 Buncombe County Board of Education meeting, Drake complimented the Roberson students, parents and community but also “stated that drug use is a terrible thing, and parents and students need help with the problem.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the testing, however. Jim Edmonds, who represents the Enka District on the school board, cast the sole vote against the pilot program in May of last year.

“The intent of it is good, but it is an invasion of privacy,” says Edmonds. He also questions the wisdom of targeting the kids who are active in extracurricular programs. “This is probably the main group that does not [engage] in the most drug use,” he notes.

Edmonds, an attorney, says the legal issues involved prevent him from supporting the program. “We are treading on ground that we shouldn’t be stepping on,” he asserts, adding that he’s heard from others in the community who feel the same way.

In late June, school board members circulated an e-mail among themselves to gauge the level of support. Although no vote was needed continue the pilot program, Edmonds said he remains the only board member who opposes the tests.

“Drugs are a pervasive problem, but I don’t think we leave our civil liberties at the schoolhouse door,” Edmonds observed. He concedes, however, that “there are courts that disagree with me.”

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Oklahoma high school’s testing of students involved in extracurricular activities was not unconstitutional. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: “Somewhat like adults who choose to participate in a closely regulated industry, students who voluntarily participate in school activities have reason to expect intrusions upon normal rights and privileges, including privacy.” Examples are, in the case of sports, states of communal undress, and in the case of other activities, extended time together and cases where students are chaperoned. Since then, school boards across the country have considered implementing drug tests, with mixed results.

The Transylvania County Schools recently concluded their first year of drug tests in two schools and have declared their intention to continue the program. Several other North Carolina counties have considered or are considering such testing, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national anti-drug-test advocacy group.

When the Buncombe program was launched last fall, Dodson said it might be expanded to other county schools if it were deemed successful. But at this point, there are no plans to do so, he told Xpress.

Although the Board of Education must approve the implementation of testing, the decision to pursue drug testing is left up to each school’s administration, Baldwin explained. And with only one year’s worth of results to examine, other schools have not yet stepped forward.

“It’s not something I see happening this year,” he said.

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