Effectiveness of Minnesosta's Superior High drug testing difficult to measure
SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Hannah Toland was in her first-period language arts class last March when she was chosen for random drug testing at Superior High School.
An office assistant came to the then-freshman’s classroom with a note calling her out of class. The other students joked that it might be for drug testing, Toland said.
“It freaked me out, and then it ended up happening,” said the 15-year-old, who is involved in several school activities, including soccer and cross-country running.
At the nurse’s office, the procedure was explained to her and Toland was told to give a urine sample. For a freshman, it was a “nerve-wracking” experience at first, she said. But her discomfort went away and she passed the test, “because I don’t do that kind of stuff.”
Toland is among the three out of every four Superior High School students subject to random drug testing. Begun in 2006, the testing targets students involved in “co-curricular” activities — athletic and academic teams — as well as those who park in the school lot and members of the Pledge Maker group, which asks students to refrain from illegal drugs. This year, the participating students make up roughly 75 percent of the population of 1,351. The Duluth school district is considering rolling out similar testing for its high schools in 2015.
When Superior school administrators were researching random drug testing in 2005, “there seemed to be a drug culture around here, quite heavily,” said Assistant Principal Steve Olson, who runs the program. “It didn’t matter if it was kids that were involved in co-curriculars. It seemed we needed to try to get a hold of this.”
How it works
At the start of each school year or sports season, eligible students and one parent sign a “code of conduct” card that enters the student into the random drug testing pool. Once a week, a testing company from Appleton, Wis., draws two students from each of the three groups. Olson rounds up the participants early in the morning, usually in the first half of the week, and takes them to the nurse’s office, where each is given time to produce a sample. Students can have up to three glasses of water.
“We do wait,” Olson said, noting that in seven years, the longest it’s taken a student is two hours. Cognizant of missing instructional time, teachers will allow makeup exams, or Olson will wait to test a student if one is taking an exam.
The test checks for marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD, benzodiazepines (which are sedative-type drugs), barbiturates and codeine/morphine. Olson said alcohol use is occasionally checked.
A courier takes the samples to the Appleton facility.
It cost the school district $2,580 to test 188 students last year, and $3,360 to test 207 students the year before.
A positive test
A student with a positive drug test is called to Olson’s office, where they talk about the test.
“I’ll ask, ‘Is that a surprise?’ ” he said. “Usually if it’s marijuana, they openly admit it to me. And we do not have to call medical review.”
If the student wants to call the medical review officer employed by the Appleton company to discuss a possible reason for the positive test — such as a prescription — Olson leaves the room, he said, because it has to be a private conversation.
A letter is sent home and the student is asked to call home as well. Retesting at the family’s expense is an option. The student is also suspended from whatever pool made him or her subject to the drug testing.
For Pledge Makers and school parkers, that’s nine weeks. For those in co-curricular activities, it varies, but a first code of conduct offense for athletics leads to a quarter-season suspension. Refusal to take the test leads to a one-year suspension for those in each pool, from those activities. Students aren’t suspended or expelled from school for positive tests.
Police are never involved in Superior’s random drug testing, school administrators say. But a positive test does lead administrators to recommend students to be screened by a part-time Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse coordinator at the school. If the screening — which students can choose to have — shows a need for help with substance abuse, students are referred to places like Essentia Health-Duluth Miller-Dwan or the Superior Treatment Center. All students, whether screening shows a need or not, are referred to a Hazelden teen treatment program, of which successful completion would reduce suspension time.
When a test is refused or is negative, a letter is also sent home.
Toland’s mother, Krista Pascoe, is a fan of the letter idea and the program.
“I knew what we were getting into when they became active,” Pascoe said of her daughters. “I don’t know how much kids think about the consequences of their actions, but I think all these things keep drilling that message into them.”
Superior researched drug testing at other Wisconsin school districts and held community meetings before adding the program, said Janna Stevens, who became superintendent in 2009.
The main goal, she said, was to identify whether students were using drugs and then get them help. The community was supportive, she said, because “there was a thought that they wanted to have a better reputation.”
She said she hasn’t been challenged on the policy but other administrators reported some initial unrest. Stevens said the only calls she has received from parents are those asking school officials to test their kids. They will, if the students consent. Otherwise, it’s illegal unless the students are in one of the three pools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that testing of students in co-curricular activities is legal, and many schools have extended that to those with parking privileges.
It’s hard for Stevens to say whether the program has reduced drug use among Superior’s students. Only a small percentage test positive, she said — seven last year, for example. Expulsions related to illegal drugs have fluctuated, last year seeing 12, the most in a decade. The school’s population declined by 350 students during that time.
“Do we know for a fact that we end up making a difference in the life of that child? I can’t say that,” Stevens said. “Are they continuing to use and finding ways to avoid being tested? That could very well be happening. But you can’t educate kids who are high. We want to make sure we’ve done everything possible to help support our kids.”
A national study published in January suggests that drug testing doesn’t stop students from starting to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or drink alcohol. It looked at 361 students between the ages of 14 and 18.
Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, co-authored the study that appeared in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
“The kids really at risk are the ones using drugs a lot; if they do that they are going to miss school and their grades are going to drop,” Romer said. “They can be identified without random testing.”
Students also tend to figure out what drugs leave the body’s system quickly, the most obvious being alcohol, he said.
More effective, he says, is a positive school climate where administrators are respectful, explaining discipline and rules to students, instead of simply handing down a suspension.
“Schools that treat their students with respect, and students that treat each other with respect tend to have better mental health and less drug use and bullying,” Romer said.
Superior High School doesn’t have a zero tolerance policy, said Principal Kent Bergum, taking each incident on a case-by-case basis. Students caught with large amounts of drugs in school would be up for expulsion, because they’d probably be trying to sell to other students. But if it was a small amount of marijuana or beer, that probably wouldn’t be the case.
Over the years, the addition of the random drug testing program has seemed to improve the school’s culture, Bergum said.
He points to the sheer number of kids involved in Pledge Makers. About 800 students have pledged to remain drug-free. Recruiting efforts go on all year, and those students involved are rewarded with events that include things like dodgeball, hypnotists, raffles and other games: think chemical-free graduation parties several times a year.
“Nobody is going to be naïve enough to think this has cured all the drug issues students might be presented within our community,” he said. “But it sends the right message for the school that we are trying to help kids make good decisions.”
Toland, who is a member of the Pledge Makers, said the experience of being tested didn’t sour her on the school.
“The idea of it is good, to keep the school clean and under control,” she said.
But senior Andrew Kelley says the random drug testing of students shows a lack of trust by school staff. The program breeds hostility in some students toward administrators, he said.
“It’s a more positive environment when we show trust for each other,” he said.
Kelley, the editor of the Spartan Spin, the school newspaper, hasn’t yet been tested, although he’s in the parker’s pool. And while many have been drawn more than once, he knows a lot of students who have gone through nearly an entire high school career without being picked, and are willing to bet they won’t. He doesn’t think students cherry-pick illegal substances because of the policy, he said.
“No kid is going to look at it and go, ‘They test for marijuana, I’m gonna go get some crack,’ ” Kelley said. “They’ll do it even if it’s tested.”