Should we be drug testing students?

Rick Wagner • Mar 2, 2018 at 7:45 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County school board’s first look at a potential student drug testing policy generated more questions than answers Thursday evening. Vice Chairman Randall Jones said the proposal, based on a model Tennessee School Board Association policy, will need a long and thorough review and then a rewrite before any vote. 

“We don’t want a knee-jerk reaction to put in a policy,” Jones said during a board work session. Member Jerry Greene said the board must be careful that any policy adopted doesn’t “create more problems than it solves.”

The proposal, introduced by Board of Education member Mark Ireson, will be a review-only item at Monday’s 6:30 p.m. school board meeting and go before the board’s Policy Committee before another discussion at a March 29 work session.

The proposal emerged after Ireson attended a community meeting organized by Dobyns-Bennett High School parent Susie Weatherall in Kingsport last month. Attendees decried drug use by city students and, among other things, called for random student-athlete drug and alcohol testing in local schools.

“It’s going after a problem without any solution” offered, said board member and attorney Matthew Spivey. The draft calls for “recommendations for referral to intervention or treatment resources as appropriate.”

For a first offense, students would be suspended from all extracurricular activities for 14 days. A second offense would bring a suspension for 30 days, third for a year and fourth forever. All confirmed incidents would be referred to a school resource officer. 

The proposed policy would add to the existing policy that allows and outlines how the system tests for drugs under reasonable suspicion. “No student who tests positive under a random drug testing program shall be suspended or expelled from school solely as a result of the positive test,” the draft states.

Ireson’s proposal, which Ireson was not there to present, would bring back drug and alcohol testing the county system ceased in 2008 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said. However, that testing impacted only student-athletes, while the new proposal is broader.

 Among other school board concerns and discussion points:

— The draft policy says extracurrucular activities, “defined as voluntary participation in activities not falling within the scope of regular curriculum and carrying no academic credit,” would include “athletic programs, cheerleading, band, clubs, student leadership positions, etc.” Jones pointed out band in local schools is a combination for-credit and extracurricular operation. Spivey said “etc.” is way too open-ended to make it into such a policy; Rafalowski said it “draws attention very quickly for me.”

— “Qualified witnesses” would have to be trained and could be open for liability, Hughes said, since the draft states that “malicious use” by school personnel would be grounds for firing, which Jones said would include doing non-random drug testing unless there was reasonable suspicion.

— The board looked only at the draft policy changes, not the procedures that would support the policy, which Jones said “would either make it or break it.” He used to work in the central office of the Bristol, Tenn., school system, which has random student-athlete drug testing.

— The number of panels — i.e., which drugs would be found by the tests — and cost must be determined. Rafalowski said that the pre-2008 tests cost about $20 each and that five students at each of the four high schools were randomly tested each month.

— Spivey said that the school system would be overreaching if it found evidence of drug use not done at school, such as over summer vacation or a weekend, and Rafalowski said drugs can remain in hair for about four months. Spivey said urine tests are common, but blood and hair also can be used. “That’s one of the pitfalls other systems experienced: When did they use?” Jones said.

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