Nation’s Schools Take Initiative in Drug Battle

By Debra Viadero — September 10, 1986 7 min read

When the cheerleaders and football team return to Phineas Banning High School in Los Angeles this month, they will find that a new exercise has been added to the athletic regimen: drug testing.

Along with some 400 other student athletes at the school, they will be asked to submit voluntarily to a program of random tests performed free for the school by a local hospital.

The principal, Estela Pena, calls the program “just a thing of the future if you’re going to be an athlete.”

But in the small ‘Texas town of Hawkins, that future includes non-athletes as well-and it is here now.

In August, Hawkins school officials began requiring drug tests for students involved in any extracurricular activity. Those who fail will be barred from after-school activities for 90 days, according to Superintendent Coleman Stanfield, who said he believes his school’s mandatory drug-testing program may be the first of its kind in the nation.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire’s Timberlane School District, officials plan to begin giving drug tests to prospective employees in October.

‘Terrance Holmes, the assistant superintendent of schools, said the urinalysis would be part of a pre-employment physical exam.

New Awareness, New Programs

Though drug-testing-whether mandatory or voluntary-continues to be a controversial area with uncertain legal ramifications for schools, more and more of them are considering it this fall as one option in an increasingly urgent war against drugs.

And this turn to testing-though still the exception rather than the rule--is one indicator, some state and district officials say, that a nationwide fall offensive against drugs is taking shape at the local level.

The public’s growing awareness of the drug threat, they say, coupled with recent alarming trends in drug use among the young-including the spread of a powerfully addictive form of cocaine called “crack” - has intensified the search for new and effective ways to combat the problem.

Marianne Lee, director of the Governor’s Alliance on Drugs in Massachusetts, said that her office has been “inundated with inquiries” since it gained media attention this summer as a program national drug-abuse experts called a “model.”

“Everyone is willing to roll up his sleeves and do whatever he can more so than at any other point in my 25 years in the field ,” added Levander Lilly, assistant to the chancellor for citywide drug education programs in New York City.

This year, in fact, Americans for the first time identified drug use by students as the most important problem facing public schools in an annual poll conducted by the Gallup organization. (See related story, page 11.)

What is more, they have also indicated a willingness to pay more taxes to solve the problem, according to another poll. A New York Times! CBS survey, released Sept. 2, found that two-thirds of 1,210 adults polled said they would pay more federal taxes to jail drug sellers.

And the national media have joined the anti-drug campaign, with both NBC and CBS airing primetime television specials on cocaine last week. (Early Neilsen ratings showed the CBS special, “48 Hours on Crack Street,” to be the highest-rated television news documentary of the decade, seen by some 24 million Americans.)

Schools and communities are responding to this heightened public concern in ways that range from tighter discipline codes and in- I creased drug education to cooperative programs with law enforcement agencies and drug testing.

Here are some examples :

  • In Washington County, Md., drug-sniffing police dogs began patrolling the hallways and parking lots of eight schools in August.

James Lemmert, director of supporting instructional services for the county, said officials had rejected a similar offer from the local police three years ago.

“I think the public is a little better educated now,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘We’ll accept these things if you provide us with a drug-free environment.’ ”

  • Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry announced last month a new statewide effort--called the Commonwealth Alliance for Drug Rehabilitation or CADRE--to pool the resources of four state agencies in the war on drugs.

The attorney general has also proposed legislation to require some school officials to report suspected drug sellers to police.

  • In Washington, D.C., the police department plans to beef up its squad of 44 officers who patrol near district schools. And student leaders have begun circulating a “pledge of self-discipline,” covering drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and truancy.

“This is the year for it,” said Janis Cromer, a spokeswoman for the district’s education department.

She said school officials are also tightening discipline procedures for students caught selling drugs. Such students can now be suspended for a year in addition to any court-ordered punishment.

  • More than 931,000 New York City public-school students will be attending a Sept. 30 teach-in on crack. A second teach-in will be held statewide in October.

And Nathan Quinones, the city’s schools chancellor, is drafting a new discipline code that calls for automatic suspension of students caught using crack or carrying crack paraphernalia, according to Mr. Lilly.

  • School officials at Coronado High School in San Diego will ask student athletes this fall to volunteer for drug tests. If they agree, parents will pick up the $20 laboratory costs for the tests.

Assistant Principal Maurice Shaw said the school plans to expand the tests to students involved in all after-school activities and eventually every student at Coronado.

  • And in St. Clair Shores, Mich., controversy over a proposal to test some teachers for drugs almost delayed the start of school for 4,000 students there. Now resolved, the conflict was among a number of issues being negotiated as part of a new contract.

New York’s Mr. Lilly credits much of this explosion in anti-drug activity to the introduction of crack to the drug scene roughly 18 months ago.

“It’s unlike the 1960’s, when we were dealing with heroin and it was all in the ghetto and the general public was not concerned,” he said. “Crack is unlike any other drug. It has no socioeconomic limitations. Everyone’s concerned.”

But drug testing remains an issue that divides those framing the new assault on drug use.

Officials instituting voluntary tests for students insist that the proposals are receiving overwhelming support from parents and students.

“It gives the kids a reason to say ‘no,’ ” said Coronado High School’s Mr. Shaw. “It’s a good excuse. There’s that peer pressure out there that they have to deal with.”

Differing Views on Tests

But even such voluntary programs, in which results are kept secret, are meeting strong opposition from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

Loren Siegel, a special assistant to the A.C.L.U.'S executive director, said that voluntary tests are a misnomer in the context of schools or the workplace. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘If you don’t take it, we’re forever going to be suspicious of you.’ ”

Meanwhile, efforts to require drug testing for students and school employees are getting a mixed reception in the courts.

In what may be an important ruling, a New York appellate court judge said in August that a Long Island school district could not require its teachers to take a drug test in order to win tenure. The tests violated the teachers’ Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches, he said.

District officials have appealed the decision, however. National education groups have also been slow to endorse drug-testing policies.

“Large-scale, mandatory testing of students is impractical,” said Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who said he might favor the testing of selected groups of students, such as athletes or band students.

The public, however, may feel differently In the CBS/New York Times poll, three-fourths of the full-time workers interviewed said they would be willing to undergo a drug test.

Money A Limitation

But in their efforts to expand any of the new anti-drug programs, Ms. Lee of Massachusetts noted, states will be drawing from a shrinking pool of federal funds.

Nationwide, she said, federal block-grant money for drug-education programs has decreased from $10 million in 1980 to $7.5 million this year.

In Massachusetts, officials have helped fund their program by soliciting private contributions, she said. Other state officials said they would be looking to the Congress in the months ahead for the funds to support broader drug-education initiatives.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Nation’s Schools Take Initiative in Drug Battle