How one school system took on steroids

The drug-testing and education program in Polk County, Fla., is serving as a statewide model.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was a proud day for Diane Werrick when the boys of George Jenkins High gained a berth in the state soccer final before spring break. Although her team lost the match, they felt they won much more - by proving that students don't need drugs to succeed in sports.

As athletics director of a school in Florida's Polk County, Ms. Werrick is well familiar with that message. In January, in a pioneering move facilitated by government money, Polk became the first county in the nation to introduce steroids testing for its student athletes.

Now, Florida is on the verge of another national first. The pilot program appears to have been so successful in steering teens away from steroids, and educating them about the risks of taking such substances, that a bill moving through the Legislature looks likely to expand testing into high schools statewide by the fall of 2006.

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Florida's firsts are playing out against the poignant backdrop of professional baseball's troubles with steroids. The clouds of suspicion lingering over some of the sport's biggest role models, and the sight of marquee names appearing at congressional inquiries, have combined to create a maelstrom of publicity. And the scandal is certainly not lost on Florida's high-schoolers.

"The kids are talking about it," Werrick says. She adds, however, that just how much steroids have taken hold among adolescents is open to debate: "[The baseball situation] has stirred up the question, which nobody has an answer to yet, of whether there is a big problem with steroids in high schools, or whether we're trying to stamp out steroid-taking in our schools before it becomes one."

National numbers

Personal tragedies and official figures both show that Werrick and her educator colleagues are right to be concerned. Researchers at the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project have recorded a steady rise in students taking anabolic steroids since the mid-1980s. An all-time high of 2.5 percent of 12-graders admitted to their use in the year prior to the report's publication in December.

The university has concluded that nationwide, more than 300,000 teens take steroids annually.

In Austin, Texas, memories are still fresh of the 2003 suicide of 17-year-old baseball pitcher Taylor Hooton, who had become depressed after taking steroids to try to lift his performance. Recent high-profile steroids scandals involving football players at schools in Colleyville, Texas, and Buckeye, Ariz., have bolstered calls for states to introduce compulsory testing. In addition to Florida, states where lawmakers are considering such legislation and policies include Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas.

"Adolescents are much more prone to fall into the steroids trap without being aware of the health risks," says Rep. Marcelo Llorente, sponsor of the Florida House bill that he hopes will also speed through the Senate and arrive on Gov. Jeb Bush's desk for signing into law before the end of next week.

"The goal is to educate young kids to deter them from using steroids. I will be delighted if we get no positive results," he says.

The groundbreaking bill, which has already won the unanimous backing of three key House committees, gives the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) until Oct. 1 to nominate one sport from which students would be subject to steroids testing in the 2006-07 school year. If successful, the program would widen to incorporate other sports.

Those selected would submit breath and urine samples to test for for recreational drugs as well as steroids. Punishments range from counseling to suspension from sports programs, though safeguards will be in place to ensure that athletes aren't disciplined for "false positives" caused by cold remedies or other legal medications.

As in Polk County, a significant part of the state program would be a requirement to educate students about the potentially damaging effects of steroids. This was crucial in winning the support of the FHSAA, which was lukewarm a year ago in its backing of Mr. Llorente's earlier failed bill, which lacked a substantial educational component.

"The [new] law would put teeth into what we need to try to prevent ... and to deal with it if it does," says Dr. John Stewart, the FHSAA commissioner.

"Fortunately, we don't have a single documented case in Florida, but to say it's not going on would be like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand," he adds. "If we can protect the life of one student, we will have done something worthwhile and valuable."

The cost per student

Finance could yet be an obstacle to the bill's progress. The average $20 cost for testing one student for recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine rises to almost $120 when the steroids element is incorporated. But having studied the "exciting and wonderful" Polk program in detail, Llorente is convinced the cost to the state will be worth it.

The Polk project has roots at the 2,000-pupil George Jenkins High, which recorded a 25 percent drop in the use of recreational drugs among students after it began testing in 1997. In 2002, the county was awarded a $240,000 federal grant to test students taking part in competitive activities. It then realized there was enough money left over to introduce and sustain steroid testing until October 2006.

About 130 high school athletes have been tested so far, at a rate of up to five a day, with no results coming back positive. Audrey Kelley-Fritz, manager of the Mark Wilcox Center in Winter Haven, where Polk's drugs-testing is based, says that publicity about the program has helped get the message through to students.

"We never set out to be a trendsetter," she says, "but now that we are, we intend to be the best trendsetter that we can possibly be."

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