At first glance, the Pewaukee (Wis.) School District would not be a likely candidate to consider a drug-testing program. There was no one incident, such as a student’s overdose or a police bust of a party, that spurred school officials to take such action. In fact, there was no evidence at all that drug use was a significant problem in the district’s high school. But the realization that no community’s youth are immune to the allure of drugs, as well as the district’s unwillingness to rest on its laurels, led officials to look into adopting a drug-testing program. Marty Van Hulle, the principal of Pewaukee High School, explains, “Kids who are alcohol and drug free will perform at a much higher level. One of our primary jobs is to create an environment where kids can perform to their highest potential.”
The process began in March 2003 with a survey of all parents of students in grades 8-11. Of the 597 surveys sent out, almost half were completed and returned. They indicated a high level of support among parents for drug testing in the high school, and so the board of education formed a task force to develop a policy. Knowing that a high level of community support would be crucial in operating a successful program, “the board deliberately included persons on the task force who were initially not in favor of a drug-testing program,” says Frank Goodwin, a member of the board since 2000 and its current president. “This was never a slam dunk.”
As the task force conducted its research, it provided regular updates to the board’s policy committee and communicated directly to the public through the high school and district newsletters and through the district’s Web site. In February 2004, the task force presented a policy to the board, which adopted it two months later. The policy provides for random drug testing of all high school students who are involved in athletics or other extracurricular activities. Such students sign an athletics and activities code that, among other things, prohibits drug use.
From the beginning, officials were clear on one thing: If they were going to test students for drugs, the program was going to be nonpunitive and focused on the health and well-being of students. In the policy the board adopted, a student who tests positive never enters the legal system. Instead, that student is notified of the test result by a physician, who provides initial counseling to both the student and parents on rehabilitative options. Because a positive test means that the student has violated the school’s athletics and activities code, there is a consequence, usually a suspension from the student’s sports team or other school group, but the emphasis continues to be on rehabilitation.
Making Drug Testing Work
Random drug testing has been taking place at the school for five years now, and opposition is virtually nonexistent. This is largely due to the school’s clear message that the program exists to support the well-being of students, not to punish them. But the sensitive and deliberate process that the school board went through in developing the program deserves much of the credit as well. “We wanted to make sure that from a due process and confidentiality perspective we respected folks’ rights,” says Van Hulle. “We wanted not only to be legal but also respectful.”
Because the program only tests students who are involved in athletics or other extracurriculars, Goodwin acknowledges that it isn’t a direct deterrent to everyone. But both he and Van Hulle believe it helps to create an environment in which drug use is identified as a clear impediment to health and success. “We want to reinforce a culture of nonuse for kids and give them another reason to say no,” says Van Hulle.
Pewaukee’s success with its program has led officials to encourage other districts and schools to implement their own programs. “The biggest thing is make sure the community is involved,” Goodwin advises. “Be as transparent as possible. If communities do that, they’ll probably be surprised at how supportive folks will be.”
Don Parker-Burgard is associate editor.