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Tamaqua students take first test

Published August 06. 2010 05:00PM

Tamaqua Area School District athletes already had to pass a test this week, and the first day of school isn't until Aug. 30.

That is because the district's board of education adopted a mandatory drug and alcohol testing policy for any Tamaqua Area student in grades 7-12 who plans to participate in cocurricular activities or applies for a parking pass.

The mandatory testing began this week, and it will be followed up by random testing of students during the school year.

Tamaqua athletes enjoyed a pretty good year overall in 2009-2010. The football team qualified for the District playoffs, the boys swimming, girls basketball and girls track and field teams all won Schuylkill League titles, and the Lady Raider cagers and soccer squads won District 11 crowns.

Several individual Raiders also earned honors, topped by a PIAA State championship in the javelin from Allison Updike.

Their rewards for success? The district instituted a pay to participate policy a couple of years ago, with athletes charged $10 per sport. Fortunately, an anonymous benefactor has picked up the tab for that.

Now, it's "here's a plastic cup, you know what to do with it."

While it seems that Tamaqua's athletes are receiving unwarranted extra scrutiny, when it comes to drugs, district officials would rather be safe than sorry.

Those officials cite what they perceive to be an increase in alcohol and drug use, based on the number of referrals to Tamaqua Area's student assistance program. A number of juveniles were also arrested during a drug sweep of Tamaqua Borough last October.

Obviously, Tamaqua Area is looking to step up preventative measures beyond bringing in anti-drug speakers and checking lockers with drug-sniffing dogs.

Under the district's previous drug and alcohol policy, students caught doing drugs faced expulsion. Under the new policy, a positive test would suspend a student from their activities but not from school, and that student would be placed in an assistance program to get help. Penalties would escalate for repeat offenders.

Superintendent Carol Makuta said the tests cost approximately $5 per student, and the district expected to test 750 students during the mandatory round this week, as well as budgeting for 750 random tests during the school year.

That comes out to $7,500 just to make sure the district's athletes are drug and alcohol-free.

"All of our programs are expensive in order to make sure we have a healthy, safe school environment," said Makuta, who like other district administrators, assisted with the drug screenings this week.

Frankly, any student who tested positive this week deserves to get caught, as there was ample notice of the mandatory tests. The random testing will be another matter, however.

Interestingly, there has been a lack of outrage over the mandatory testing from parents and residents within the district. When one considers the uproar created when Tamaqua Area instituted a uniform dress policy, not to mention when the district decided to turn Rush Elementary School in Hometown into a K-1 Primary Center, that might seem surprising.

Hundreds signed an online petition when they felt the district might cut back on its music program, but no one from the public, besides district watchdog Tracy Perry, questioned the drug testing at school board meetings.

In fact, most of the criticism has come from the media after the policy was officially passed in June. A question was raised regarding Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches.

There is a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a school board in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, that supported drug screening of students in extracurricular activities, putting school safety ahead of search issues.

Also questioned was whether or not an advisory committee that met during the year violated the state's open meetings law. District solicitor Jeffrey Bowe said there were no school board members on that committee and he did not see it as a Sunshine Act violation.

As for testing students seeking driving privileges, it seems reasonable for the district to ask students who operate vehicles on school property not to be under the influence.

The biggest complaint from the public seems to be that the district is not testing its teachers as well. Tamaqua Area is currently negotiating a new contract with its teachers' union, and if drug testing is not on the table, it should be discussed.

There will always be civil rights arguments in cases like these, but the screenings are intended as a proactive means to deter students from getting involved in drugs and alcohol. The tests will help alleviate peer pressure if everyone has to take them.

"I think the testing is great," said Linda DeCindio, Tuscarora, who is a parent of a district student as well as a school bus driver. "It's a shame it had to come down to this, but it has to start here. No one should have anything to hide. The middle school is where they start getting temptation. This is a step in the right direction."

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