Drug testing not best method to stop usage

A Times Editorial
Published December 10, 2006

The Hernando County School Board will have the opportunity Tuesday to put an end to superintendent Wendy Tellone's 2-year-old crusade to force certain groups of students to submit to urine drug tests.

The board should do more than reject the idea, which is fundamentally unfair and an affront to students' privacy; the board also should instruct Tellone and her staff to come up with other methods to fight drug use, ones that are more focused on education, prevention and identifying illegal substance abusers.

This program would be funded by a $418,000 federal grant, including the employment of another drug counselor to oversee the program.

The emphasis of any successful program should be on education and prevention and getting help to those who need it. All available funding should be spent giving teachers and parents the tools they need to recognize kids who are using and refer them for testing, counseling and discipline.

In addition, this proposal is flawed from an administrative standpoint. It would single out all students who are "engaged in athletic and competitive activities" and require students and their parents to sign a release for urine testing before participating in those activities. At a minimum, athletes and cheerleaders will be included, but would it also include members of the marching band or the Spanish Club, for instance? They compete, too.

Most students do not use drugs. That said, too many do, and the district needs to concentrate on taking practical steps to curb that behavior.

For example, Tellone and her administrators have repeatedly expressed concern about students who leave campus at lunch and return under the influence. If that problem is as widespread as they have led board members to think, then attack it directly. Require students to check in and out before leaving or returning to campus. If suspect behavior is observed, administrators and school resource officers have the authority to act on their suspicions by referring the student to counseling or recommending to parents that their child be tested for drugs privately. Or, if all of that is too much trouble, don't allow students to leave campus.

But imposing a program that forces the majority of students to prove their innocence is excessive and unwarranted.

It also is hypocritical for Tellone and her staff to recommend drug tests for students if they are not willing to recommend that administrators, support staff and teachers submit to the same undignified search and seizure.

And where does the teachers union stand on this issue? Its collective voice has grass roots credibility. But its members should keep in mind that if students are forced to take drug tests, it puts teachers and teachers' aides one step closer to being the next target in this administration's "gotcha" campaign.

By comparison, the Citrus County School Board recently recoiled at its superintendent's recommendation to begin a similar, yet less broad, drug testing program for student athletes. The negative reaction from the board eventually was so emphatic that the superintendent categorically withdrew the idea a little more than two months after she proposed it.

The Citrus board members were particularly concerned about fairness, legality and the prospect of government misusing its authority. They said they lacked concrete evidence that testing actually deters drug use and that testing compromises students' privacy, including female athletes who use birth control. They also were uncertain about adhering to all of the stipulations set forth in the grant by federal authorities.

All of those concerns should be shared by Hernando's School Board.

There has to be effective alternatives to forcing arbitrary blocs of students to urinate in a cup to establish their innocence as a prerequisite for participating in extracurricular activities.

Tellone has been narrowly focused on implementing a drug testing program that raises more questions than it answers. She has not presented other options. The board should insist that she does - right after it rejects the recommendation to accept this ill-advised grant.