Drug screening students at school: To test or not to test?

Published: Nov. 19, 2012 at 9:02 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 3, 2013 at 10:56 PM EST
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Bullitt County Public Schools has been testing students since 2006.
Bullitt County Public Schools has been testing students since 2006.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It's the million dollar question: How do you know for sure whether your teenager is using drugs?

According to a recent government study, 47% of students admitted to having used illicit drugs.

Jim Michalowski is a proud father to a 19-year-old son and a daughter who's a high school junior. Michalowski lives life on the straight and narrow and expects his kids will as well.

He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 26 years. He is a real by-the-rules guy which is why some might be surprised that this year, when Spencer County Schools considered mandatory random drug testing for some students, Michalowski was one of the most vocal opponents.

"If you have a bad idea, it really doesn't matter how many people embrace it and think it's okay. It's still a bad idea," Michalowski said.

An increasing number of school systems and parents are embracing drug testing for some students. Bullitt County Public Schools has been testing students since 2006.

"This is a great idea," said Mike Gossett, a parent, teacher and coach at Bullitt Central High School. "We teach them from the time they're young, don't do drugs, just say no and all those things, and this is a program where we actually back that up as they get older."

Even some students are in favor of drug testing.

"I'm fine with it because I know that I don't do drugs and that if I did, it would impact my sports," said Isaac Mitchell, a freshman who runs track and cross country.

Mitchell joined three other students to talk about the testing: Cameron Dukes, a freshman who plays football, basketball and baseball; Alyssa Shiflett, a senior who runs cross country and track; and Colin Trent, a sophomore who plays basketball and baseball. All four are in favor of drug testing.

"I think if it comes back saying that they haven't been doing drugs, it's proof to their parents or teachers or anything that they haven't been doing drugs," Trent said.

Bullitt County randomly tests athletes and all students involved in competitive extracurricular activities. "Business teams, chess teams, any kind of groups that compete with other schools" are among them, according to Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator Jaime Goldsmith.

Goldsmith also said any student wishing to park on campus has to submit to the possibility of a drug test.

Courts have said schools cannot test everyone because it's an invasion of privacy, but in Bullitt County, parents can sign up students not in those groups.

It's not just high schoolers. Middle school students in Bullitt County are eligible for testing, too.  Bullitt County is one of the only school systems in Kentuckiana to include middle school students in its testing program. Goldsmith said they're trying to catch kids before a problem develops.

"The most common age of first use, believe it or not, is between the age of 12 and 14," Goldsmith said.

Bullitt County Schools began testing using a grant from the federal government. It still uses grant money to pay for drug testing.

Oldham County Schools also test using grant money, but the school system does not test middle school students.

Nelson County also has a drug testing program.

Goldsmith said the test results don't go in any permanent record. She said it's about helping kids who have a problem, not punishing them. A first positive drug test results in sitting out 20 percent of the team's season, although students can still practice with the team and attend events. They just can't compete.

"We want them involved in school. That is a great deterrent, just keeping kids plugged in and involved in school," Goldsmith said.

After the first positive test, students in Bullitt County also have to attend drug counseling. The school system has teamed up with Seven Counties Services to help students who can't afford counseling. Students also must have a clean drug test before they can return to competition.

A second positive test in Bullitt County means sitting out the team's entire season, drug counseling and 12 consecutive months of negative test results before the student can compete again.

Some students say all of that actually helps them stay clean.

"If they pressure you to do (drugs), you can be like, 'No, I have sports. I want to park in the parking lot. I'm taking the drug test,'" said Shiflett.

But others worry it will be an excuse for kids who need something positive in their lives to stay away from sports or activities that can help guide them. It's one of the reasons a spokesperson for Jefferson County Public Schools said the state's largest school system is "just saying no" to drug testing. The other reason is the cost.

One of the other large school systems in Kentuckiana, Greater Clark County Schools, does not test its students either. A district spokesperson said creating a program to do so has not been discussed.

Jim Michalowski thinks schools that do test students for drugs are overstepping.

"It's the responsibility of parents to take charge of their own families," he said. "It's not the role for the government, and the schools are the government."

He's also concerned about students' privacy. "Anything like this would have spread like wildfire," Michalowski said, regarding test results.

Students in Bullitt County said word does spread, but according to Jaime Goldsmith, almost all the students randomly tested pass -- 99-percent. Goldsmith said those results ease the worried minds of a lot of parents.

"I actually have parents that will call me and say, 'Can you please drug test my child?' And I'm like, 'I'm sorry. That's not the way our program works. It's random,'" Goldsmith said.

This is one area where both Goldsmith and Michalowski can agree. They say any parent who is concerned or suspicious that their child is doing drugs should purchase a home test that can at a pharmacy.

"They're not always going to like us, and it is not our job to be their friend," Goldsmith said. "It is our job to protect them."

A U.S. Department of Education report found that students who faced mandatory random drug testing reported less substance use than students who did not. It also found the effect did not carry over to their peers who were not subject to testing.

Click here to read the entire Department of Education study.

Copyright 2012 WAVE News.  All rights reserved.