Can peer pressure keep students off drugs?

One South Carolina school tries out a new drug-prevention tool: voluntary testing for athletes.

Call it the scarlet letter - in reverse.

A South Carolina high school is passing out gold stars to student athletes who agree to take drug tests - hoping to pressure others to "volunteer."

"We didn't want this to be a punitive measure," says Principal Ron Cowden. "But there's nothing wrong with a little peer pressure."

Controversies over mandatory testing have erupted from Lockney, Texas, to Veronia, Ore., as student testing, particularly of athletes, has become more common during the past decade. The debate frequently centers over whether the testing is a violation of students' rights and privacy.

If anything, Dutch Fork officials say, they're taking a softer approach: Players have to fail the test three times to get kicked off a team. Meanwhile, counselors and coaches will meet with the student and parents to offer support.

"If you don't participate, no benefits are withheld, but you're ridiculed and pressured - very clever," says Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

In fact, the trend across the county is toward voluntary, not mandatory, tests, experts say. That's happening as it's becoming clear to school officials that get-tough measures have done little to actually curb drug use by high-schoolers.

On a larger scale, the scheme may signal the most unusual approach yet to the country's continuing search for a middle ground on how to deal with the combination of teens' curiosity and the broad and relatively easy availability of alcohol, marijuana, and LSD. In fact, despite 10 years of crackdowns on drugs and alcohol across the country, actual usage has changed little in America's 3,000 school districts.

Half of Dutch Fork students reported smoking pot recently. It was time for a new tack, argues Bill Kimmrey, the burly, silver-haired coach of the Dutch Fork Foxes football team, who came up with the idea. "As a society, we single athletes out when they do something wrong," says Mr. Kimmrey."I wanted to reward them for doing something right."

Not everyone agrees

But senior fullback Ray Martin says he, for one, won't be sewing the gold star to his soccer uniform. He objects to the idea of his alma mater snooping into his private business - and trying to shame him into agreeing to a test he says his parents don't believe he needs. "It's not that I do anything wrong," Ray says. "But this whole idea seems to stray from the educational mission of the school."

Some say the town lends itself well to such a concept. Once a small farm community bracketed by the Broad and Saluda Rivers, Dutch Fork today is crawling with brick-and-wood complexes priced in the "low-200s."

"About 95 percent of the kids that go here are upper-middle class," says senior Chris Carver, ready to head out in his Camaro. "It's the kind of place where if a kid gets in real trouble, his parents will be right there to bail him out."

Carrot, not stick, approach

The idea fits into a school district already striving to put pride over punishment: At a recent meeting, the school board handed out a constellation's worth of gold stars to the members of the state-champ girls' tennis team and the award-winning school newspaper staff.

At least in front of parents and officials, most students have applauded the measure. The Student Council unanimously approved it.And many parents think it's a terrific idea - even when they're sure their own kids are not experimenting.

"My son's a Christian, so I don't think he'd fail it," says Sene Suli, a parent. "I think it's a good idea.My son should be rewarded for not taking drugs."

Already, the district is hoping to expand the test - which will cost parents $10 - to its other two high schools.

Moreover, on the night of the vote, a regional ROTC group announced it may also extend it to 100,000 enlistees nationwide - after seeing some results. "This is such a great idea, but we have to make sure it fits the situation," says ROTC spokesman Douglas Senter. "After all, what works here in Dutch Fork may not work in Chicago."

So far, the program targets only the Foxes' "Den of Destruction" - where its athletes train and compete. The school says it's hitting a key population - and perhaps one least likely to actually use a lot of drugs and alcohol.

Temple McLaughlin, for one, is skeptical about targeting athletes for the drug tests. As the boys' soccer team scrambles through a scrimmage, the varsity team manager says he figures maybe only half of the team will take the school up on its double-edged offer.

"We all grew up hearing all kinds of stories about our parents, who are now telling us, 'Don't do what we did,' " he says. "It's a bit hypocritical."

To be sure, in private, students protest - but meekly. No constitutional issues apply, because they don't face any punishment for not taking the test.And, they agree, this program has none of the drama of mandatory test schemes or locker searches.

But there are concerns other than constitutional caveats. Parents of football players worry that Coach Kimmrey may decide who's on the team based on test results. As a result, Kimmrey will be restricted from finding out how players scored - and who took the test.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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