The Tamaqua Area School District has implemented a new, mandatory drug and alcohol testing policy for students in grades 7-12 who will participate in the schools' co-curricular activites or seek parking privileges.

The first round of testing is scheduled for Aug. 2-5 from 8-11 a.m., and the district held an informational session regarding the procedures Wednesday evening.

About 25 people showed up for the session, which was preceded by a closed door meeting with the district's athletic coaches.

The session was conducted by Tamaqua Area High School Principal RuthAnn Gardiner and Assistant Principal Stephen Toth. Also in attendance were Superintendent Carol Makuta, Assistant Superintendent Raymond J. Kinder, and Athletics Director Michael Hromyak.

The new policy on drug and alcohol testing has been three years in the making, said Gardiner. It replaces the district's former policy, which would result in expulsion for students caught with drugs or alcohol on school grounds.

The new policy, adopted by the district's board of education last month, is believed to be the first in Schuylkill County to implement mandatory testing; others have done testing on a random basis.

Toth presented a power point presentation on the testing. He said the reasons the district is testing its students are to create and maintain a safe and drug-free environment; to prevent usage; to provide a way for parents of non-participating students to screen their children; and to provide assistance and treatment rather than expulsion for those who test positive.

Toth cited a county-wide increase in drug and alcohol usage among students. During the 2009-2010 school year, the high school received 77 student referrals for drugs and alcohol to its Student Assistance Program (SAP).

An October 22, 2009 drug sweep of Tamaqua resulted in 13 arrests, five of which were juveniles, Toth noted.

Procedure

Toth said Tamaqua Area's mandatory testing policy is patterned after one that is in use by the Delaware Valley School District.

The staging area for the testing will be the high school gym. Students will check in and be validated through acceptable forms of identification, such as a photo ID. There will be a basket for them to place valuables, much like at an airport.

Students will also be asked to provide a list of medications they may be taking.

"The students will not be searched," said Gardiner. "They will not be asked to take off their clothes. There will be no physical search of students."

The testing company is Redwood Toxicology of California. Toth said the company was chosen because it is less expensive than local testing firms, which charge $60-$70 per test. The funds for the tests are coming from the district and are included in the 2010-11 budget.

Each student to be tested will enter a room and be handed a plastic cup. The student will be asked to urinate into the cup, put the cap on top of the cup, and then flip the cup for 30 seconds. The urine specimen will then be read to determine if the student has tested positive or negative for drugs and alcohol.

"We did a dry run with administrators, and it took 1-2 minutes," said Toth. "The test reads very fast. The maximum is five minutes."

Among the substances that are being screened for, according to the policy, are anabolic steroids, amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, codeine, depressants, heroin, marijuana, morphine, methamphetamine, opiates, PCP, stimulants, Valium, and alcohol, or other drugs added at the discretion of the Superintendent prior to the start of the school year.

After the tests are read, the negative test urine is discarded. If the sample tests positive or "hot", that student will be escorted to a secure area to maximize confidentiality.

Students who test positive have the ability to contest the results. The results of any further testing will be made available in a timely matter, depending on the amount of tests the lab must complete. It would cost the student $25 for a contested test, which would be refunded if the student tests negative.

According to the new policy, students who test positive will not be removed from school but will be suspended from their co-curricular activities and parking privileges for 45 days from the date of confirmation of the positive test or until the school has received notification of the positive completion of the recommendation of the SAP team. The student's belongings, locker and car may be immediately searched upon notification of the positive test.

A second violation would result in suspension from activities for one calendar year, and a third violation would be suspension for the remainder of the student's enrollment with the school district.

"The policy has been put into place to provide remediation," said Toth. "Under the past policy, that student would have been up for expulsion."

Gardiner noted that expulsion has taken place in the past; during eight years as principal between the middle and high schools, she said she had to expel two seventh graders for marijuana use at one point.

After the mandatory testing, students will also be subjected to random tests. Toth said 10-12 students per month would be tested, most likely on a lottery system.

Questions

During the question and answer period, those in attendance asked about the administering of the tests and the confidentiality of results.

It was noted that each student will have a specific test administrator, with only one student in the room at a time. Gardiner said the district's administrators have all been certified through Redwood's web site to administer the tests.

Tracy Perry, West Penn Township, a former candidate for Tamaqua Area School Board, and a parent, asked why the district's medical staff was not administering the drug tests. "Did anyone say they wouldn't do it because of liabilities?" she asked.

Gardiner explained that the district would have liked to have its medical staff do the testing, but because of the tests being scheduled over the summer, staff members were unavailable when contacted by the administration. She conceded the staff could be involved in further testing as needed during the school year, which has yet to be determined.

Gardiner also said that parents are allowed to participate in the testing process with their children through the initial first step interview.

"I visualize that like being an outpatient at a hospital during the check-in," said Joe Berezwick, who is Tamaqua High's head girls basketball coach.

Perry also questioned if school officials can search a car if it would belong to the student's parents. Gardiner said the district retains the right to search vehicles parked on school property.

While Toth stressed that confidentiality is crucial to the program, at least one parent balked at signing the waiver form provided for the drug testing because it lists a number of people who could have access to the results, including the superintendent, assistant superintendent, other administrators and staff, as well as the testing company.

"I don't agree with that sentence (in the waiver)," said the parent. "I have no problem with the test, but I have a problem with you giving it to eight different people."

Gardiner said if the waiver form is not signed, the student would not be able to be covered. Toth said the sentence was included because the test administrator could be one of several different people.

While the officials maintained that only the test administrator, the student and his or her parents would see the results, the parent stressed, "that's not what it says." Gardiner said after the session she would check into the wording on the waiver.

Another issue that arose is whether the district's faculty would be subjected to random drug testing.

Gardiner said at this time, there is no testing planned for teachers; the district is currently negotiating a new contract with its teachers' union and such testing would have to be part of the collective bargaining agreement.

The district's bus drivers are tested, she noted.

Perry, who said she favored the drug testing in general but questioned how it is being done, also wanted to know why there was no public notification before the new policy was implemented. She suggested some students might decide not to participate in activities because they might consider drug testing to be too intrusive.

Toth said the district had a committee of faculty, administrators and parents meeting as part of an ongoing group discussion on the policy during the school year. When asked, Gardiner said those meetings occurred twice a month but were not open to the public.

While there were no students on the committee, Gardiner said she did seek input from the school's student advisory board.

Legal precedents

When asked if there are any legal precedents for schools performing mandatory drug and alcohol testing, Gardiner cited a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Vernonia School District in Oregon.

A web search revealed that case occurred in 1995, during which the court upheld Vernonia's random drug testing. It ruled that while random tests were searches under the Fourth Amendment, they were reasonable in light of the school's interest in preventing teen drug use.

That ruling was furthered in a 2002 Supreme Court case, Earls vs. the Board of Education of Tecumseh, Oklahoma, which expanded Vernonia's random testing to all students engaged in extracurricular activities, according to another web search.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority (5-4) decision in the Earls case, noting that students engaging in extracurricular activities have a diminished expectation of privacy and that "testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is a reasonably effective means of addressing the school district's legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring drug use."

Gardiner said she stands by the testing as a preventive measure against drugs and alcohol use by students.

"From my standpoint, if one kid says to his friends that he's not doing it because he's being tested, it's worth it," said Gardiner.