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Random drug testing proposal divides New Jersey community

Parents have sued school board over proposal to test students in extra-curricular activities
A Northern Valley Regional High School junior protested the random drug testing policy at a September school board meeting, saying that the testing would make students feel like criminals.
A Northern Valley Regional High School junior protested the random drug testing policy at a September school board meeting, saying that the testing would make students feel like criminals.

A New Jersey district’s proposal to randomly drug test students in extracurricular activities has parents and the school board divided over district transparency.

The board at Northern Valley Regional High School District in Bergen County, N.J., voted in July to draft a policy for the testing as a supplement to other education-based drug prevention efforts in the district of two high schools.

But parents say research has found this testing ineffective. They filed a lawsuit against the board, stating that the board did not comply with an open records request for all documents relating to the proposal—including evidence of increased drug use in the district. A court date was set for November for the lawsuit.

In August, Superintendent Christopher Nagy established a 30-member committee of administrators, medical professionals, teachers, parents, and government officials to draft the policy, which is still in the works. The board postponed its final vote from November until January, when new board members join.

The urgency for testing grew after a 2006 student survey found high use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs in the district. At that time, the board decided to focus on educational programs such as assemblies to warn students about the dangers of drugs. However, in 2010, local police officers reported increased use of marijuana, prescription pills, and heroin. In 2012, they reported 10 overdoses in children aged 15 to 17 from prescription drugs or heroin, compared to just one 20 years ago, says board president John Schettino. After this, the board decided to reexamine drug policies.

“As a school district, we have our kids for most of their waking hours, especially those in extracurriculars,” Schettino says. “The school has a significant role to play with respect to monitoring and trying to prevent these students from getting involved in drugs.”

About 15 percent of school districts nationwide have drug testing policies, according to a 2008 study from the National Drug Abuse Institute. Supreme Court decisions in 1995 and 2002 allow public schools to randomly test students participating in athletics and other extracurriculars. Any student who parks a car on school grounds—and any student who volunteers—also can be tested.

More than 80 percent of Northern Valley’s students could be tested under the new policy, according to Superintendent Nagy. Nagy says he successfully implemented random drug testing in his previous position as a principal in the state’s Upper Freehold Regional School District. “Most districts have a discussion with the board and then implement the policy,” Nagy says, adding that the parental backlash was “unusual.” “The value in the testing is we’re taking a therapeutic approach rather than a punitive approach.”

A first positive result would not be put on the student’s record or reported to police; rather, the student would be banned from their activity for a certain amount of time, and required to attend counseling at the school.

The district already has a policy for suspicion-based testing. Administrators or teachers who see warning signs of drug use can report students to the school nurse. Students who test positive are suspended for at least five days, and police are notified. Last school year, 39 of the district’s 2,300 students underwent suspicion-based drug tests, and 21 tested positive, according to a district report.

“Less than 1 percent of kids are testing positive, and most of those were for marijuana,” says Anne Baretz, a parent and a member of the committee that is drafting the testing proposal. She says she is strongly against the random testing policy. “I have a hard time believing that there is a raging drug problem in the school that needs this testing to be implemented immediately.” Though it is a small percentage, “any number of students using drugs is of concern,” Nagy says.