The Natrona County School Board expressed wariness and asked for more time to study a parent-led proposal to begin drug testing students who participate in district activities.
“I don’t think drug testing is educational,” said board member Debbie McCullar. “My belief is that we do need a drug-education program for both staff and students. ... To just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to randomly test any of you’ and call that education, I guess I take exception to that.”
“I think we need to start with some sort of education program,” agreed fellow member Toni Billings. “The possibility of a drug test might give that kid who doesn’t have enough strength at a party to say, ‘I’m not smoking that, I’m on the track team.’ ... But I also know that my own child knows he can be randomly drug tested by his mother at any time. And as his mother, that’s my job.”
Monday night was the first time the board had discussed drug testing at a work session in several months. In April, several board members met with high school officials, parents and other district officials to discuss the proposal, brought forward by a concerned parent. But in the weeks after that meeting, board members said they had “heard nothing” from parents, potentially out of fear of having their name attached to a drug testing policy.
The proposal received a mixed response at that meeting. At least three board members said they wouldn’t support the policy. Others expressed concern that the policy would simply deter students from participating in activities, which can have a detrimental effect on student success: Studies show that students who play sports or join clubs are much more likely to graduate.
On Monday, members generally agreed that drug use was a problem among Natrona County students. But the board largely expressed more interest in a strong educational program and studying the effects of drug testing policies rather than instituting a program in the near future. Still, they did not fully rule it out.
Rachel Hedges, a vocal supporter of random drug testing who spoke at the round table discussion in April, told the board members Monday that the policy would prevent kids from trying drugs. She said she became especially concerned about drug use as she learned more about the strength of new products, like edible marijuana.
“The scary thing about it is, you can do it right in front of a coach or a teacher and you wouldn’t smell it, you wouldn’t even know they were doing it,” she said. “And these products are up to five times stronger and completely different than the marijuana that was available to us in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
There was some concern among the board about the legality of testing, but member Angela Coleman said courts have ruled that as long as the random testing is applied only to those participating in activities, it would be permissible. When parents sign a waiver allowing their child to participate, they would also agree to allow testing.
A number of other districts in the state, including Campbell and Goshen counties, have similar drug policies. Boyd Brown, the superintendent in Campbell County, told the Star-Tribune in the spring that it hadn’t really deterred student participation in activities.
Dana Howie, who chairs the board’s policy subcommittee, said there was some concern about how to pay for the testing. The district recently cut millions from its budget and will have to do so again in the coming years. But Hedges said that any amount of money the district could provide would help.
“Even if we only have $100 to put toward it ... I think as long as you guys put a policy in place that says we are going to do random drug testing, and you might get called if you’re in the participant pool, just the fact that knowing that, I think you’re doing your job,” she said.
Board member Dave Applegate said he didn’t think financial constraints were “insurmountable” and that the district could test and educate at the same time. But he said he wasn’t sure that it would ultimately be preventative.
He added that, as a libertarian, he was generally opposed to more bureaucracy and government interference.
“I’m just not sure where I’m at,” he said.
The board generally agreed with Applegate: more study, a desire to institute a drug education program, and more conversations with districts that have implemented similar policies.
Still, board member Clark Jensen said that education isn’t a magical bullet. He pointed to studies that showed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, did not work to deter students. The program had been common in schools in years past.
The board expressed a desire to alter the district’s code of conduct for students and make it tougher on substance abuse. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said district staff could have that work completed in a month or two. The research board members requested would take longer, he said, potentially several months.
Howie said the policy subcommittee would meet again in a month to discuss the issue further.
Hedges said that if there was no policy and students thought there was no risk to doing drugs, they would have no reason not to use.
“Education’s not going to cut it, y’all,” she said.