School drug tests 'successful'
Putnam will join Cabell, Jackson and Mason counties in screening students
by Zack Harold
CHARLESTON, W.Va.--Some West Virginia schools are taking their "say no to drugs" pep talks a step farther.
Jackson, Cabell and Mason county school systems now subject student drivers and athletes to random drug testing and are seeing good results. Putnam County is about to institute a program.
"I think it's having an impact on kids," said Cabell Superintendent William Smith.
"When we look at kids who have drug problems, we're not seeing athletes or the ones with driving privileges.
"It's been pretty successful. We haven't had the kind of involvement with drugs as we expected initially."
Todd Alexander, Cabell's administrative assistant for secondary schools, said, "We do believe it is acting as a deterrent for students."
Jackson County Superintendent Blaine Hess said his school system tested 1,041 sixth- through 12th-graders in the 2009-2010 school year through its random drug testing program, now in its third year.
Only eight tests, less than 1 percent, came back positive, he said.
Hess said his county has about 2,500 students in the sixth- to 12th-grade group, although not all were eligible for drug testing. Jackson County tests student drivers and those who participate in activities that involve competition with other schools: sports teams, debate teams, even the FFA club.
Cabell County's Alexander said his county tested 386 of its 3,400 high school students in the 2008-2009 school year. Only 23 tests, about 6 percent, came back positive.
The Cabell school system also began testing middle school students last year. Of the 675 random tests conducted on sixth- through 12th-graders, only 19 students tested positive. None of the positive results came from middle schoolers, Alexander said.
Cabell schools also test student drivers and high school athletes. Students in after-school programs aren't automatically enrolled in the random drug testing, the superintendent said, but parents can sign up their children.
Linda Rollins, assistant to Mason County Superintendent Suzanne Dickens, said in the four years Mason County Schools have conducted the tests, only two students have been flagged. And that was in the first year of testing.
Rollins said the school system tests about 5 percent of high school students who drive or participate in extracurricular activities, 50 to 60 students every year.
The tests aren't free.
Alexander said Cabell schools pay $27 per test, amounting to over $28,000 a year.
Hess said Jackson pays $22 per drug test, about $18,000 a year.
Mason school board members agreed to pay $30 per test at a June meeting. That amounts to about $1,800 in tests per year.
Smith said Cabell County financed its first year of testing with a grant but now pays the fees from its general budget. He said it is money well spent.
Cabell County doesn't discipline students after their first positive test unless they drive to school. Smith said those students lose their driving privileges after one strike. Otherwise, the county talks to the child's parents. The student must enter counseling and is given follow-up tests.
Athletes are barred from sports for one semester if they test positive for drugs a second time.
Jackson schools conduct random drug testing every week, Hess said, and the number of students tested at each school depends on enrollment. Ripley High School, the county's largest, tests 12 to 15 students a week, Hess said. Other schools test fewer students, but none test fewer than 10.
Hess said he considers the program, also in its third year, a success. He said his school system started drug testing to help students with substance abuse problems.
If a student's test comes back positive for drugs, the county calls the parents in for a conference and the child is required to attend counseling. The county then provides follow-up testing a few weeks later, he said.
On a second offense, Hess said the county requires more counseling and restricts students' participation in extracurricular activities. On a third offense, the student is suspended for one year.
As in Cabell County, Jackson student drivers get only one chance. Hess said driving privileges are revoked immediately after one positive test "as a matter of safety." Students can't drive to school again until follow-up tests come back clean.
The school system does not turn test results over to the police, however. Hess said the program's primary focus is to let parents know their students are using drugs.
Hess said drug testing also helps students resist peer pressure because it gives them a "solid way out."
"They can say, 'Hey, I might be drug tested next week,' " he said.
"What is the unknown is how many students declined to use drugs because of the possibility they might be tested," Hess said. "That's the great unknown. We can only go by what some kids have told us."
Following on the heels of Jackson, Cabell and Mason county schools' random drug testing programs, Putnam County now is considering a similar policy.
"They seem to feel like it has been successful and is successful. It's just another move to anything we can do to try to deter drug use. We feel like it's a positive move," Putnam Superintendent Chuck Hatfield said.
"It's a problem of our society. Hopefully, it's just another mechanism we can put in place that would help deter (drug use)," he continued.
Putnam's drug testing policy is currently out for public review, but Hatfield said he's received little response.
"I think it may be. . .old hat. It's not like it's something that no one's heard of before," he said.
The policy is to be structured similarly to other counties' programs. Only student athletes and drivers would be tested. After an athlete's first positive test result, the school system would notify parents and require the student to work with a drug prevention coordinator. Then there would be subsequent testing.
"If that were clear, everything would be fine," Hatfield said.
When follow-up tests also are positive, students are to be removed from activities until they receive treatment, he said.
Hatfield said student drivers would lose their privileges after one strike.