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Point, counterpoint, but no easy answers

Published October 29, 2006


You're sitting in the stands at your son's wrestling match, taking the measure of the snarling, muscle-bound hulk looking to lock your boy in a death grip. A thought crosses your anxious mind: Is that the kid's game face or are you looking at steroid rage?

Your daughter leaps to block a shot in her volleyball contest and the teen across the net smashes the ball into her face with unbridled, wild-eyed glee. Is the opponent wired on adrenaline or cocaine?

Are these improbable, worst-case scenarios? Check out the sports pages these days, from the Olympics to any professional league to the Tour de France and then answer.

These are also the days when our constitutional rights to privacy are evaporating before our very eyes. Government claims the authority to listen in on our phone calls and e-mails, to look at our personal records, to install surveillance cameras everywhere, to invade every aspect of our lives without notice or permission. Should we as parents allow our children to be subjected to an even more intimate invasion?

If you find yourself torn by conflicting emotions and compelling reasonings, join the crowd.

The School Board is taking up the question of whether the school district should start testing student athletes in the fall for drugs and alcohol. Board chairman Lou Miele says this is the toughest decision he has faced as a member, and it's easy to see what makes it so difficult.

The arguments were all on display at the board's meeting last week when roughly 50 parents and students turned out to speak their minds and get information.

We'll start with the common theme, because it is what really matters in the end: Keeping kids safe. How to accomplish that was the rub as the sometimes-tense discussion rolled on for more than two hours.

Question: Why focus on athletes, who some say are the least-likely teens to abuse their bodies with drugs or booze? Why not test all of the students?

Because the Supreme Court says that's as far as a district can go. Board Attorney Wes Bradshaw explained that the two court cases approved random drug testing only for student athletes and for those in competitive extracurricular activities.

A young woman who hits all of the bases spoke. She is a graduate of the Citrus school system, now teaches in the district, and is also a parent. Athletes are the icons in high school, she said, they are the role models. And they are a great place to start.

Random testing treats the students as accused criminals who must then prove their innocence, said another parent, a doctor. The statistics that the district has cited to demonstrate the problem of illegal drug and alcohol use are skewed and irrelevant. There is no way to measure the effectiveness of this expensive program.

Will the children of prominent parents be treated the same as everyone else? (Yes, the tests are random and conducted by an outside company.) Will the police be told of any positive results? (No.) Will the kids get treatment for their problems? (Yes, at no cost to the parents). Will the results go on the students' permanent record, to be shared with any district staffer? (No).

What is the error rate with the samples? (1 in 1-million). Can the student fool the test by using someone else's "clean" urine? (No, special cups are used to deter that.) How much classroom time will a student miss for testing? (About 10 minutes, and can make it up.)

What if a kid tests positive? (Parents are told and the student sits out two contests and gets treatment). What if a teen doesn't want to be tested? (The student can't be on the team). Why not test the teachers and staffers? (Teachers are tested before hire; anything further would have to be sorted out through union negotiations. Bus drivers are randomly tested.)

Some speakers just made astute observations. A woman talked of how alcohol and drugs severely impact young people's still-developing brains. A father said the district should need probable cause to conduct such a search. A mother noted that drug-testing is a fact of life in the military, college athletics and most businesses so teens should get used to it now. A medical professional pointed out that testing has not deterred usage at the nuclear plant in Crystal River.

For every argument advanced, a counterpoint was raised. Emotions stayed in check, however, and even if certain minds were closed, at least mouths mostly stayed that way, too, when opposing views were aired.

Two speakers stood out to me, because they addressed not legal or moralistic points but because they seemed rooted in reality.

The first was the only student athlete to address the board. She noted the lack of fellow teens in attendance. If her fellow athletes really thought this was a big deal, she said, they would have been there to protest.

And a faculty member and coach spoke from the heart when he said that over his many years as a high school teacher, he has attended too many funerals for teens killed in wrecks caused by drinking or drugs.

To the parents who insisted that their kids don't do drugs or drink booze, he asked: Have you been on MySpace lately? Don't fool yourself into thinking that you know all about your teenager's secret life when he or she leaves your front door.

There are no easy answers. The board will spend the next few months learning more about the program that superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel has proposed. There will be workshops and board meetings and a final vote most likely in February.

That is plenty of time for parents to do their own homework, a number of meetings where parents and students should show up and let their feelings be heard.

Chairman Miele is right: This is the toughest decision the board has faced in many years. Don't sit on the sidelines on this one.

[Last modified October 29, 2006, 07:13:21]

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