Miami May Put Students to the Test - For Drug Use

Though voluntary, program creates uproar

Sherline Cameron feels she's under siege.

First her school made her wear an ID badge. Then it closed her campus at lunchtime, tried to require uniforms, and, a week before Christmas, got rid of lockers.

Now, the school board wants students tested for drug use. "They're gradually infringing on students' rights without realizing that, at some point, we're not going to want to deal with it anymore," says Sherline, a senior at Miami Beach High School. "They're not going to take any legal action, so what exactly is the purpose of it?"

In a controversial move, Miami's school district could soon be testing some high school students for drugs, becoming the first big-city school district to enter this uncharted area of drug prevention. The school board initially approved the idea in September. A final vote on a program is expected to pass in a meeting scheduled for Feb. 18.

The goal, says Renier Diaz de la Portilla, the board member who proposed the program, is remedial. "We're not trying to punish the student. We want to get them help."

Under the program, 5,000 of the district's 83,000 high school students would be selected for the test, provided their parents - and the students - consent.

The district's trial program would cost $200,000. Extending it to all 31 district schools would run in the millions.

Growing interest

Most of the nation's school districts have been reluctant to consider widespread drug testing. But interest grew in the wake of a 1995 Supreme Court decision authorizing Oregon schools to conduct random drug tests on student athletes.

Now officials at many schools would like to cast a wider net. Last fall, District 66 in Omaha, Neb., became the first school district in the nation to randomly test some of its seventh- through 12th-graders. New Jersey's school-board association voted in November to allow districts to conduct random testing for students. Ohio's House of Representatives passed a bill last year allowing Ohio districts to submit plans for school-board approval. Senate approval is still required.

"I'm getting more and more requests for information from school districts," says Beth Lindamood of the Coalition of Drug Free Greater Cincinnati, who favors testing. "Schools are asking, 'How do I go about doing it?' "

A testing tempest

But if Miami is any indication, putting a new drug policy in place will be difficult. Already, the city's plan is creating an uproar. Many parents support testing. But critics judge it impractical, expensive, and intrusive.

For one thing, they say, the district already spends $4.6 million on drug prevention and education. Students in 16 Miami schools have already formed clubs called D-FY-IT, whose members pledge to abstain from drugs and be tested for use on a random basis, using money from private foundations. Also, the city program doesn't provide for action if a student tests positive.

"I'd feel more inclined to do it if something positive is going to come out of the test in terms of helping that teen versus satisfying the parents' need to know," says Sherline, echoing the views of many students.

Many experts say that testing fits a growing pattern of schools using monitoring devices - metal detectors, sniffing dogs, and surveillance cameras - to crack down on violence and drugs. In 1992, only a quarter of America's large school districts said they used metal detectors somewhere. In 1996, 80 percent did, according to Ron Stevens, executive director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

"School officials feel more bullish on the search and seizure issue," he says. "They've been battered and beaten and they're starting to say, 'We're going to change the way we do business.'"

In Miami as elsewhere, many students consider marijuana a part of their life - at least on weekends. "You can come to this school and find anything from pot to cocaine," says Sherline. "People know whom to go to when they need their drugs." Drug use has dropped 50 percent nationally in recent years, but use of marijuana has increased rapidly among teenagers, although it seems to be leveling off, national surveys suggest.

Testing can help fight peer pressure, says Los Angeles child psychologist Robert Butterworth, who studies the issue. Dr. Butterworth says it can also prepare students for the workplace: More than 90 percent of Fortune 200 companies test employees for drugs, according to the Washington-based Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace.

"But there is a risk side to this," Mr. Stevens says. "It begins to send a message to students that, when you get into a school, your honesty and your trust are constantly suspect. It creates a totally different environment."

He asks: "Are we going to stop with a urine sample or we going to go to a blood or DNA sample?"

To ease concerns over confidentiality - and avert court challenges - Miami came up with a hybrid policy: Only parents who agree will have their children tested. The policy gives students the right to decline the test, which could cost $25 per student. The school won't be informed of the test results. There will be no mandated procedures for those who test positive. Punishment or rehabilitation is left to the family.

"[The policy] takes care of the legal issue," says Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Board Association in Washington.

"Yet it could still have an effect," Ms. Gregory says. "Parents could agree to it, but if the kids say no parents are going to know and wonder, 'What's going on?'"

Many students disagree. Most interviewed for this story say they would refuse to be tested, either because they admit to smoking marijuana or because they feel it's not the school's business to check them for drugs. "That's an invasion of privacy, regardless of whether you smoke weed or not," asserts Gina Tellez, a 10th-grader at Coral Gables High School.

Alex Annunziato, president of the district's student-government association, calls the policy a waste of taxpayers' money. "What this does is point fingers at people, but the test does not measure their problems with drugs," says the senior at Miami Coral Park Senior High School. "When kids who are not problem kids are identified as problem kids, it creates a problem in their homes. It doesn't produce conversation: It produces confrontation."

And if the test is positive? "They have half the school, and what are they going to do, put them in rehab?" asks Nagara Vangineau, a 10th-grader at Miami Beach High School.

"As long as we don't bring the drugs to school and leave them behind, they shouldn't even consider it," argues Jonathan Simas, also a Miami Beach 10th-grader.

His father, Paul Simas, says he's worried about drugs, but argues that the policy "looks like the school board trying to show they're trying to do something about it. Kids might be resentful."

"The person has to want to change," says 11th-grader Traci Testa. "School can't force them."

Getting parents to talk

But in the 5,000-student district of Omaha, school officials say testing has forced at least one thing: a discussion between parents and children about the issue.

About 100 randomly chosen students have been tested, with parental approval. Twenty have refused the test. For Superintendent Ken Bird, the program's measure of success isn't the number of positive or negative tests. "We have a great dialogue going in the home on the issue of drug use and abuse," Dr. Bird says. "Parents are talking more than ever before. If the kid says no, that's between the parent and them, but it's back to the dialogue issue."

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