Parents divided over testing student athletes for drugs

Oct 13 2011 - 10:43am

CHICAGO -- Depending upon which side you're on, a snippet of hair could either save a teenager's life or represent an outrageous invasion of privacy in Lake Zurich, Ill., where officials have proposed drug testing for students who participate in athletics and extracurricular activities.

More than 15 years since the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it legal for public schools to test randomly athletes for drugs, a relatively small number of Chicago's suburban schools now screen selected students for use of marijuana, amphetamines, opiates and other illicit substances.

Opponents argue the practice is a costly breach of privacy. They also question its effectiveness.

"If we can't test the entire population ... why would you infringe on the rights of the kids who are leaders of the school?" asked Jenny Snyders, a parent who drew cheers during a public hearing this week.

She asked if school officials might next be checking her living room to make sure her son isn't sitting on the couch, drinking a beer. "Where does it end?"

The controversy is especially heated during this economically troubled time, when schools have slashed budgets and national debate centers on government's role in society.

A U.S. Department of Education study estimated 14 percent of public schools had drug tested students in 2005 -- when federal grants helped fund the program. Those grants have dried up, though.

In the 2010 national study, researchers who evaluated the effectiveness of drug-testing programs found "pros and cons that need to be considered," department spokesman David Thomas said.

In Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95, the proposal is to randomly select 15 high school students, up to six times a year, to submit hair samples for testing. The policy would affect only those who participate in athletics and extracurricular activities or who park on campus.

School officials stressed that the results would be confidential and would not remain in students' permanent records. The cost -- $40 per test, $3,600 over a school year -- would be a minimal investment in improving student safety, advocates said.

"I think some people are presenting it as something the administration is trying to push through, and that really is not ... accurate," district spokeswoman Jean Malek said. "It's being explored. If parents are not in favor, that's fine. That's the feedback."

Lake Zurich officials said support for drug testing was strong among parents surveyed a month ago, despite overwhelming opposition at the Oct. 5 forum. The board began researching the concept three years ago, then put it on hold amid budget cuts, board President Kathy Brown said.

The community had been roiled over news that three Lake Zurich High School alumni died of heroin overdoses in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, the district's annual youth survey showed 17 percent of seniors reported being drunk or high at school the prior year -- compared with 13 percent Lake County-wide.

"The thought is that drug testing would be a deterrent," said board member Tony Pietro, who was interrupted at the hearing by a woman who shouted, "That's my job!"

The district will poll the community again and vote by December, Brown said.

If approved, the program would run separately from drug testing conducted by the Illinois High School Association, which screens athletes for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.

Skeptical parents said they feared their children would be stigmatized, even if they tested negative or proved they were prescribed medication.

"Doctor-patient privacy rights will be violated so the school can verify a drug is prescribed," opponent Keith Petropoulos wrote in a flier he distributed. "Will the school really be able to keep testing results secret?"

If enacted, students who test positive would be suspended from activities for half of a season or school year. A second offense would result in a full-season suspension. Parent meetings would be scheduled and penalties lessened if a student received counseling.

Several community members praised the district for its attempts to address substance abuse.

"I want your children to live," said Jim Cairo, of Lake Zurich, describing the drug-related death of his brother at age 22.

(c)2011 the Chicago Tribune

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