Strategies for Success, New Pathways to Drug Abuse Prevention
Issue 2 • Volume 1
Fall/Winter 2007

When Drug Testing Stops (and Starts Again)

After just one year of testing, the percentage of students testing positive for drug use at De La Salle dropped by almost half, from 6.2 percent in 1998 to 3.3 percent in 1999.

In March 1998, De La Salle High School in New Orleans made headlines when it became the first high school in the area to implement mandatory random drug testing for the entire student body.

Officials at the private Catholic school noticed a change almost immediately. After just one year of testing, the percentage of students testing positive for drug use at De La Salle dropped by almost half, from 6.2 percent in 1998 to 3.3 percent in 1999. Positive drug-test results declined again the following year, to 2.0 percent, and remained relatively low thereafter.

Then disaster struck. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, devastating the city and the surrounding area. Homes and businesses were destroyed, residents evacuated, and schools, which had opened only weeks earlier, were forced to shut down. More than six weeks later, De La Salle became the first high school in New Orleans to open its doors and classrooms after the storm.

Classes were back in session, but life at De La Salle was hardly back to normal. Only about half of the school's 550 regular students had returned. Meanwhile, De La Salle had taken on many students from other, storm-ravaged schools in the area.

It was a confusing, difficult time as administrators were forced to deal with pressing disaster issues in the area. Many school operations were put on hold, including De La Salle's vaunted drug testing program.

“We felt we had bigger problems,” recalls Principal Gina Hall. Ultimately, though, suspending the program only strengthened her belief in the benefits of drug testing.

It is impossible to know precisely what effect, if any, the absence of drug testing had on drug use at the school. But when testing resumed several months later, school officials were shocked to see that the rate of drug-test positives had spiked to 8.4 percent, well above that of any previous year. Results taken the following fall, with testing underway, showed the rate of positive tests plunging by more than half.

Clear-headed kids

Tony Bonura was born in New Orleans and graduated from De La Salle in 1986. He came back as dean of students in 2002. Although he had no experience with random student drug testing, he supported the concept, influenced by his days as a coach at another high school that did not test for drugs.

“I lost a player to a drug overdose,” he says. “An all-American kid, captain of the basketball team.” As a new faculty member at De La Salle, with its robust drug testing program, Bonura “realized immediately we could help a lot of kids.”

There have been no drug overdoses at De La Salle in the five years he has been on the job, either among current or former students, says Bonura. He sees other signs as well, some quite subtle, that the school is standing strong against the currents of substance abuse. When you walk down the halls, he says, you don’t see glazed eyes and dull expressions. “You see clear-headed kids.”

The beauty of drug testing, he continues, is how it relieves peer pressure by giving students a convenient reason to say “no” when offered drugs. Better yet, it allows them to avoid the question altogether.

“They don’t even get asked anymore,” he says, “because other kids know they go to De La Salle.”

Today, the numbers are looking better than ever. Assistant Principal Tony Bonura, who conducts drug testing at De La Salle, says preliminary results for the entire 2006-2007 school year show the positive-test rate at less than 1 percent. He is convinced that drug testing is keeping substance abuse at bay. “There's no doubt in my mind that testing is a deterrent,” he says.

Testing for all

As part of De La Salle's “Random Plus” drug testing program, every student in grades 8-12, as well as every member of the faculty and staff, is tested for drug use at least once during the school year. Students entering grades 9-12 from other schools must pass a drug test before being admitted. The tests are administered five days a week, with five to seven students tested each day. Once a student has been tested, his or her name goes back into the pool. This means a student may get tested again that same year.

Students selected for drug testing are summoned from the classroom and directed to the testing room, where several strands of hair are snipped from their heads. The samples are sent to a lab and examined for use of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and MDMA (Ecstasy).

The process, from classroom to testing room and back again, takes only a few minutes, explains Bonura, adding that the students have come to accept drug testing as part of the school's normal routine. When called in for testing, he says, students do not feel ashamed or unfairly singled out. “They joke about it. They know they are being picked because everyone is being picked.” One day, he recalls, a girl was brought to his office looking nervous. “I told her she was here for a drug test, and she relaxed. ‘Oh, thank goodness,' she said. ‘I thought I was in trouble.' ”

De La Salle's drug testing program is funded through the school's tuition, at a cost of about $55 per test. Students who test positive for drugs must submit to a second test, this time at their own expense. The point of testing, says Bonura, is not to punish students who use drugs, but to provide counseling and determine if some kind of treatment is necessary. “We don't hang a scarlet letter around their necks. The idea is to get them the help they need.”

De La Salle Drug Testing Results

Bar chart showning De La Salle Drug Testing Results from 1997 through Fall 2006
Results from bar chart based on: academic years, samples processed, and percent positive rates. 1997-98, 985, 6.2%: 1998-99, 1106, 3.3%; 1999-00, 898, 2.0%; 2000-01, 785, 2.9%; 2001-02, 772, 2.8%; 2002-03, 839, 4.3%; 2003-04, 745, 2.1%; 2004-05, 745, 1.9%; 2005-06, 286, 8.4%; Fall 2006, 165, 3.6%; Totals, 7,326 samples, 3.5% positive rate.

With a first positive drug test, the student and his or her parents meet with Bonura and Principal Hall to talk things over and determine the best course of action. The meeting is confidential and designed to “take the lid off the silence,” as Bonura puts it. All related documentation goes under lock and key. The test results are not shared with law enforcement or entered on transcripts. At the end of the student's senior year, the records are shredded, the slate wiped clean.

De La Salle is serious about stopping drug use, but compassion is built into the policy: Everyone gets a second chance. As Bonura points out, kids can get detention for not wearing a belt—a required part of the school uniform. But for a first positive drug test, there is no punishment at all.

With a second positive test, however, regardless of how many months or years have passed since the first offense, the student must withdraw from the school. Even then, Bonura explains, De La Salle's guidance staff will help provide the student with counseling and information about treatment resources.

The spike in drug use at De La Salle in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina “moved the issue of drugs to the front burner,” explains Principal Hall. There was a time when she had doubts about drug testing. Not any more. In fact, she sees drug testing as the best thing a school can do to ward off the drug threat.

“I put a lock on my front door to keep anyone from coming in and hurting my own kids,” Hall says. “We do drug testing for the same reason—to protect our students from harm.”

Drug Testing in Non-Public Schools: Hilton Head Preparatory School

Students at Hilton Head Preparatory School, an independent K-12 school in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, accept drug testing as part of the school routine. “They don't complain. They understand that this is what we do,” says guidance counselor Marilyn Calore, who manages the testing program.

Hilton Head Prep requires drug tests every year for students in grades 7-12, as well as for all faculty and staff. The program began as a voluntary initiative in 2002, but was revised in 2003 to become mandatory.

Like De La Salle High School, Hilton Head Prep uses the hair-analysis method of testing. Rather than run the tests continuously, though, Hilton Head Prep tests everyone at or near the start of school, then conducts two random tests during the year. All adults—including teachers, staff, nurses, custodians, and even the head of school—are drug tested on the first day of school.

Over the course of several days in the fall, students are called into a specially outfitted locker room, where trained nurses clip 30 or 40 strands of hair. The samples are sent to a lab and analyzed for signs of drug use: marijuana, cocaine, opiates, PCP, and amphetamines. One advantage of hair testing, says Calore, is that it can detect drug use within the previous three months.

Testing in Public and Non-Public Schools

In decisions over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has given public schools greater authority to randomly test students for drug use. The rulings represent a major breakthrough. With a broader pool of students eligible for random drug testing, public school administrators across the country have a powerful tool for combating student drug use.

But this does not mean that public schools have carte blanche authority to drug test whomever and whenever they choose. Their authority has strict limitations. Random drug testing in public schools has been upheld by the Supreme Court only for students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities. State and local laws may also place restrictions on random drug testing in public schools.

By contrast, non-public schools, such as De La Salle High School and Hilton Head Preparatory School, are not State actors or agents of the government and are, therefore, not bound by the same restrictions placed on public schools. Non-public schools are free to develop more expansive testing policies, even programs that require drug tests for all students.

With a first positive test, the student and his or her parents meet with the Head of School, Dr. Susan R. Groesbeck, for a frank discussion and to schedule the required counseling and further testing. A doctor or counselor might then suggest treatment. There is no penalty. “The first positive test—that's a gimme,” says Calore. “That's a wake-up call.”

Students who test positive for the first time are required to participate in testing throughout the remainder of their enrollment at Hilton Head Prep. If a student tests positive for drugs a second time within two years, he or she must leave the school. (Adults must score negative on all drug tests.)

After four years of testing, the average rate of drug-test positives at Hilton Head Preparatory is “staggeringly low,” or around 2 percent, explains Groesbeck, who came to the school in 2003. She credits the drug testing program and praises the administrators before her who carefully researched, developed, and implemented the plan.

“It's a safety net—not a dragnet,” as she puts it. “The program is designed to reach out and help children, not to catch them.” Still, she cautions, drug testing “can't be instituted ‘kinda,' or almost.” It is vital for the school board and the community to be fully behind the plan, which must then be tailored to the local circumstances. “It's valid only in the soil in which it's planted,” she says.

Ultimately, adds Groesbeck, the purpose of drug testing boils down to one simple wish: “I want kids to feel this gives them a reason not to use drugs.”

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