August 16, 2022

Drug Testing

Testing 1, 2, 3

Even as student drug use overall has declined statewide, the number of students in Florida public schools subject to random testing has more than doubled since 2003.

Gina Edwards | 10/1/2004
During the course of this school year, Michael Stutzke, the athletic director at Sebastian River High School, will crank the handle of a bingo-ball wheel and roll out several of the 100 numbered balls, each representing a student athlete.

The athletes selected in Stutzke's lottery will have to urinate in a cup, with the samples tested for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, opiates and amphetamines. Athletes whose tests indicate they've used drugs can, if it's their first positive test, face suspension from the team for the remainder of the season and next season. Or they can agree to weekly drug testing and counseling at their own expense.

Sebastian, located in Indian River County on a sprawling campus sandwiched between I-95 and the Atlantic, has been randomly testing athletes in all sports since 1996. It was among the first public high schools in Florida to conduct random drug tests, and by 2000 only four other districts had adopted similar programs.

Today, however, Sebastian looks like a trendsetter. Even as student drug use overall has declined statewide, the number of students in Florida public schools subject to random testing has more than doubled since 2003. Six counties have started programs since 2003, and this school year, more than 30,000 public school students in 11 of Florida's 67 county school districts will consent to random drug testing. Most districts check only athletes, but others test members of the band and drama club and even students who just want a parking pass.

While the 30,000 students represent just a fraction of the middle and high school students who could be subject to testing under the current legal landscape, the number being tested is almost certain to grow. Emboldened by a 2002 Supreme Court decision and a January proposal by President George Bush to provide $23 million in federal grants for random student testing, at least half a dozen more Florida school districts are looking into drug-testing policies. Stutzke finds himself faxing out copies of Indian River County's testing policy to inquisitive school administrators and coaches around the state. "I've had more interest in the last six months than ever before," he says.

No opposition
So far, the political landscape in Florida around testing has seen little of the controversy that the issue has produced in other states. Even so, some Florida school administrators are wary of a possible outcry from parents and civil libertarians. In the spring, administrators from a consortium of 14 Panhandle counties discussed developing a joint policy but took no action for precisely that reason. "Since this was an election year, we didn't want to get too much controversy going," says Anthony Anderson, superintendent for Liberty County schools.

Ned Julian, the school board attorney for Seminole County, which has rejected testing, says it's problematic when a school points out a child's drug problem. "It puts you into a lot of strife with parents. They just don't want to know."

Other states have seen organized and passionate protests over student drug testing. The California Senate, prodded by the state's parent-teacher organization, passed a testing ban in June. Nationally, the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have also come out against random drug testing of students. The national Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union blanketed 24,000 parents, teachers and policy-makers in February with a brochure, "Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No."

Random testing violates teens' privacy and sends a message of distrust by forcing them to prove their innocence, says Judy Appel, legal director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "You give up a lot of the important and trusting relationships that are key to kids thriving in schools," she says.

In Florida, however, the drug-testing trend has unfolded quietly and without much friction. The ACLU of Florida, for example, opposes random drug testing but hasn't organized campaigns against it. "Certainly we oppose suspicionless random drug testing of students," says Randall Marshall, legal director for ACLU of Florida. "When all is said and done, it's an ineffective way of getting at the problem."

Meanwhile, most Florida districts with random student drug testing report a warm and fuzzy response from parents. "It's been shocking how positive it's been," says Melinda Moses, a co-athletic director and guidance counselor in Columbia County, which started a testing program during the past school year. "We haven't gotten any flak."

Opponents like Appel also find themselves swimming against the legal tide. The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to random, suspicionless drug testing of students in 1995, in the case of Vernonia School District v. Acton. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. But the court found in a 5-4 decision that an Oregon high school could test athletes, saying they have a lowered expectation of privacy. Concerns about safety on the field and a drug problem at the school made the testing program reasonable, the majority found.

In 2002, in another split decision, the court went further, ruling that schools can test all students participating in extracurricular activities, not just sports. "A student's privacy interest is limited in a public school environment where the state is responsible for maintaining discipline, health and safety," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority in the Board of Education of Pottawatomie County v. Earls case.

In the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the testing program upheld in the Earls case "capricious, even perverse," saying the Oklahoma school district's policy invades the privacy of students who least need deterrence.

The court stopped short of allowing schools to test all students. But the case emboldened districts to broadly define what constitutes an extracurricular activity and to include students who enjoy any kind of privilege -- like parking passes -- in their random testing pools.

In some cases, the result has meant almost all students are subject to testing. The testing pool in rural Columbia County, for example, includes all those in extracurricular activities and those who drive to school, encompassing about 84% of students at the district's high schools.

Even then, some school officials lament their authority still isn't broad enough. Most Florida district officials with random programs say they'd test everyone if they thought the courts would allow it.

Punishment or help?
Advocates of random testing say the programs don't punish students who test positive; instead they help students get drug-free. Courts have limited how schools can use the information gleaned from random drug tests: A positive test result can't affect a student's academic career, nor can schools turn the results over to law enforcement.

Some critics, including Jerry Kelley, superintendent in Gulf County, think that doesn't make sense. Kelley questions how, under zero-tolerance policies, a district can expel students if school officials find drugs in their lockers but can't act when they find drugs in their urine.

Coaches and administrators in schools with random testing respond that they're giving kids a potent antidote to peer pressure. Some kids will do drugs no matter what. Others will never touch them. The testing programs work on kids in the middle who need a crutch, says Moses of Columbia High School in Lake City.

Stutzke puts it this way: When a joint gets passed around at a party, student athletes at Sebastian River High can say, "Hey, listen, I can't. The downside for me is just too great."

Marion County, in the football-frenzied back yard of the University of Florida, approved a testing program in July. Superintendent Jim Yancey, a third-generation Gator football player, proposed the testing policy for athletes in the spring.

Some coaches quietly wondered how drug testing might affect their rosters, says Wayne Yancey, Jim's brother and the football coach at Forest High School in Ocala. "You need to care more about the kids long term than winning and losing," Wayne Yancey says. Testing gives athletes "an option to say 'no' because it not only hurts them, it hurts their team," he says.

The cost
At George Jenkins High School in Polk County an announcement came across the loudspeaker twice this spring. The voice called a number of students by name to the cafeteria but didn't say why. It didn't have to. "Everybody kind of knew what it was for," says Chris Betts, a 17-year-old cross-country runner at the school. Once in the cafeteria, the students were told they'd been selected for drug testing.

The intercom announcements served as a not-so-subtle reminder to student athletes: Just say no to drugs. We'll find out if you don't.

Betts, who trains with his teammates five to six days a week, thinks mostly non-athletes do drugs. He and his friends on the team don't. "They couldn't handle it," he says. His father, Steven Betts, says he'd want to know if Chris were using drugs. "It's not a goody-two-shoes school," he says.

Every athlete at George Jenkins -- in all of Polk County schools for that matter -- can expect to take a drug test at least once in the coming year, says Audrey Kelley-Fritz, manager of Polk's Safe and Drug Free Schools program, the most extensive and expensive such program in the state.

Last year, Polk competed against districts across the country to secure one of eight U.S. Department of Education grants for random drug testing. The district started its initial program in March.

The $230,000-a-year grant -- a sum that could pay the salaries of five teachers -- will allow Polk to administer the program and test its roughly 6,500 student athletes for each of three years. This year, the district expects the grant to pay for 7,500 tests at $25 each.

Typically, tests that check for illegal drugs like marijuana, opiates, cocaine and amphetamines cost between $10 and $40. Steroid testing can cost upward of $50 per test, and only Polk plans such testing for now. Other districts, like Santa Rosa County, expect to spend just $7,500 for the year and test fewer than 10% of the roughly 4,200 students who participate in extracurricular activities.

To pay for random student drug testing, school districts can apply for federal and state grants. In Florida, a school can use Safe and Drug Free Schools grant money for student drug testing so long as it's part of a broader effort that includes such things as drug education, according to the Florida Department of Education. Otherwise, the district must pay for drug testing from its local budget.

Lab testing is more expensive than do-it-yourself options. While most Florida districts use labs to generate random lists of students and conduct the tests, Sebastian River High School in Indian River County will spend less than $1,000 on Accutest 5 Drug Test Cups. The cups give an immediate result for marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, opiates and amphetamines and cost less than $9 each. If the test comes up positive, then Stutzke calls in a parent to observe a second test.

Other districts prefer to distance themselves from the results with privacy safeguards offered by labs. For example, if a student in Columbia County tests positive, the lab will contact the student's parents to find out if the student is taking a medication that might trigger a positive result. If so, the parents have 24 hours to produce a doctor's prescription. Once that happens, the lab discards the positive result and the school never knows about it.

Dueling data
Districts with testing programs say that typically only a handful of students test positive each year. In Polk County, for example, only two of 500 athletes tested in the spring showed signs of drug use -- both for marijuana. Some program administrators wonder: Do the tests scare kids away from using drugs, or do the tests just fail to detect them?

An unjustified negative test made Manatee County officials suspect the latter. A female athlete at the school broke down crying when she got called to give a urine test. She admitted using drugs to her parents, but when the school went ahead and tested, the results came back negative. Howie DeCristofaro, Manatee High School's athletic director at the time, believes kids had figured out a way to beat the system. When he contacted the testing lab, officials there told him they expect to catch only about 2% of those using drugs, DeCristofaro says.

"I told the principal 'We're wasting an awful lot of money and not catching anybody,'" DeCristofaro recounts. Manatee ended its program in 2002 after nearly six years of testing.

Miami-Dade County decided testing wasn't worth the cost. It ended a controversial 1997 pilot student drug-testing program. Okeechobee, now six years into a random testing program, went a full year without testing any students during one lean budget time.

For hit-or-miss testing to deter drug use, "students have to have a reasonable expectation that their number will fall out of the box," says Julian, the school board attorney for Seminole County, which has chosen not to test.

Current studies of the effectiveness of testing in reducing teen drug use have produced only dueling data. Critics like the national Drug Policy Alliance point to a University of Michigan study that surveyed some 76,000 students and found no real difference in drug use patterns among students in schools with random testing programs.

Testing advocates, like the Bush administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy, counter with small-scale examples like Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., that saw cocaine use among seniors drop from 13% to 4% after the school began random testing.

Polk County officials cite data from George Jenkins High School. Polk tested student athletes from 1996 to 2000, finding that schoolwide marijuana use dropped by 26%. The program ended in 2000 because the school lacked money to keep it going. Three years after testing ceased, marijuana use at the school had climbed back to previous levels, according to internal surveys.

Anecdotally, teachers and coaches at schools that conduct random testing hear from students like Chris Betts, the cross-country runner. "I definitely think it's a deterrent," he says.

For now, random drug-testing backers have influential allies. President Bush proposed spending an additional $23 million on random student drug testing in his State of the Union address this year. So far, $10 million -- fivefold the amount the U.S. Department of Education spent last year on grants for random testing -- has survived committee deliberations in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the Florida Legislature, Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, introduced a bill that would have given school districts explicit authority to start random testing programs of all middle and high school students in extracurricular activities. The bill passed the House with an amendment prohibiting districts from using state money designated for instruction to pay for testing. If districts want to shift testing costs to students, the amendment mandated that schools can't deny a student participation in extracurricular activities if he or she can't pay. Ultimately, the bill died in the Senate Committee on Education. A separate bill, introduced by Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami, would have required schools -- with no money from the state -- to randomly test 5% of its athletes for steroid use. That bill died in the House Committee on Education. "What we want to do is insulate the school districts from having a bunch of lawyers sue them to death," says Homan, who plans to bring the bill back next session.

In the Senate, Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, effectively killed the bill. She distrusts schools with sensitive medical information and fears that damaging information won't go away once it's in a database. "Children do foolish things all the time," Cowin says. "I would hate for them to have a scar on their record for all their adult life."

The profit connection
The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, now chaired by Joseph Reilly, owner of Palm Bay-based Florida Drug Screening Inc., lists expanded state and federal funding for student drug testing programs as one of his key legislative goals. "In the last three years, interest in student drug testing has gone from, 'What are you talking about? We would never test' to 'There's grant money available,' " Reilly says.

Reilly's company sent a solicitation to all 67 Florida school districts last year offering his company's consulting services to set up random student testing programs. Another company, EPI Inc., solicited and met with St. Lucie County officials three times before the district told the company it couldn't justify the cost of testing, says Athletic Director Jay Stewart.

The testing industry association, DATIA, joined other anti-drug groups and filed a friend of the court brief in support of random testing in the 2002 Pottawatomie v. Earls case. Supporting DATIA in the brief was the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation, a group founded by Betty Sembler, the wife of Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg shopping center developer who's now the U.S. ambassador to Italy and served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The foundation's advisory board reads like a Who's Who of Florida politics and includes Gov. Jeb Bush and first lady Columba, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former House Speaker H. Lee Moffitt and former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Tim Moore.

Gov. Bush doesn't advocate random student drug testing as state policy, says James McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control. "It's a local issue," McDonough says. "That's the most pragmatic approach the state can take. I think there could be a backlash."

Stutzke agrees that random student drug testing should remain a local issue. He has become a pro-testing evangelist who pitches random drug testing to athletic directors around the state. Ironically, he's failed to convince his neighbor: Vero Beach High School, Indian River County's only other high school, has opted to just say no.

Poppy Seed Paradox?
It happened to Elaine on "Seinfeld," but can eating too many poppy seed muffins really net you a positive drug test score for heroin? No and yes, say the experts. Poppy seeds do contain morphine, which can show up as an opiate on an initial drug test. But a confirmation test will show opiate levels far below federally established minimums, say the experts at Varian Inc. Also, the absence of a heroin metabolite, or leftover residue, tells testers you haven't done heroin.

Over-the-Counter Conundrum
Some over-the-counter medications will trigger a positive initial test result for amphetamines because of structural similarities, say experts at Varian Inc. But a laboratory confirmation test will rule out a false positive.

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