Catholic school to begin drug tests of students
By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Starting this fall, students at Clearwater Central Catholic High School will take the kind of tests you can't study for: drug tests.
Clearwater Central Catholic will begin randomly testing students for drugs and alcohol, possibly the first high school in the Tampa Bay area and one of only a few in the state.
The decision was prompted by social issues rather than a problem at the school, said Sister Mary Dion Horrigan, school principal.
"The main goal of this program is to provide a strong deterrent for students," Horrigan said.
No disciplinary action will be taken the first time students test positive, but they will be referred for drug counseling. If students test positive a second time, they will be asked to leave. The policy does not call for law enforcement to be notified.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed drug testing in public schools only for students involved in athletics. It had not specifically addressed private schools.
Pinellas schools do not test students, a district spokeswoman said. As for the state's private schools, Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, an association that evaluates and accredits 158 independent schools statewide, said he knows of no school that has arbitrary, random drug testing.
No other schools affiliated with the Diocese of St. Petersburg have implemented such a policy, said Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the diocese.
Horrigan acknowledged that few schools have taken the step. But she said she wants her students to strive for higher standards.
"We're just raising the bar, and we're saying we'll help you. We want to educate leaders, and a leader wants to make a difference," she said. "It's a very ambitious agenda, but that's who we are."
Clearwater Central Catholic, where tuition ranges from $5,450 to $8,400 a year, sent out letters informing parents of the policy and notified students in assemblies last week.
Administrators have been asking both parents and students for feedback, Horrigan said.
Reaction has been mixed, she said, with many parents supporting the move but a vocal minority opposing it.
Sophomore Tim Treshler was so distressed by the policy that he printed up 500 copies of a letter protesting it and encouraging dissenters to speak out. He sought permission to distribute the letters, but administrators seized them Tuesday, he said.
"It's basically saying you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent, instead of innocent until proven guilty," Treshler said of the policy.
His mother, Carol Treshler, said she plans to withdraw her son if the school follows through with the policy.
Lori Mattox, incoming school advisory council president, supports the program. Two of her sons attend the school.
"We have to face the reality that our kids might use drugs. If you can find out if they are and do something about it, why not?" she said.
Leaders of other area private schools said drug tests are not necessary at their schools.
Ten percent of the more than 600 Clearwater Central Catholic students will be randomly selected by a computer program over the year. The school will work in partnership with Operation PAR, which will conduct the tests on campus.
In unannounced tests, students will be called from class to report to the school office. They will be sent to a specific restroom to provide urine samples. The samples will be transported to the Operation PAR lab for testing.
Operation PAR will verify test results, notify the associate principal and notify the parents if the sample tests positive. Parents will be asked if a prescribed medication may have led to positive results. If a valid prescription is produced, results will be reported negative.
The associate principal will meet with the families of students who test positive, and Operation PAR will assess their situations and recommend drug treatment plans, which may include education or counseling.
Students will be tested for a variety of commonly used drugs, including marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and alcohol, which is difficult to detect, because it leaves the system quickly, said Judy Wells, Operation PAR business development manager.
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court approved public school drug testing for athletics.
The 6-3 vote held that student athletes could be required to submit to random tests because of the safety risks of engaging in sports while on drugs.
Private schools legally can set drug-testing policies, said Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"While this kind of program would violate the Constitution in a public school, it doesn't raise that question in a private school," he said.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks