Dade Co. Board Adopts Student Drug-Testing Policy

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The Dade County, Fla., school board has agreed to begin random drug testing of high school students whose parents consent to the idea, becoming the first large district in the country to adopt such a policy.

The Miami-area district plans to begin testing some students by early next year, officials said last week.

The school board voted 6-3 late last month to start a districtwide pilot program, and officials will begin in January to seek parent permission to test students. For parents who agree, a private testing agency will test their children for use of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, barbiturates, and amphetamines. The scheduling of such tests will be random.

"The purpose would not be to punish, but to help," said Luis Martinez, an assistant to the board member who proposed the program, Renier Diaz de la Portilla.

The proposal was intended to complement a program that already spends more than $4.5 million on drug-abuse prevention in the district. The district has set aside $200,000 to implement the testing program in its 31 high schools, which enroll about 80,000 students.

In the program's pilot stage, the test results will be reported only to the parents. They will be advised of available help if their children test positive for drug use. No school officials will be informed of test results unless a parent chooses to do so. Those provisions were intended to ease concerns over confidentiality.

Students, PTA Split

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Oregon district's policy of random drug tests for student athletes. ("Court Upholds Drug Tests for Student Athletes," July 12, 1995.)

Since then, a few school districts have adopted policies of testing students whose parents agree to it. Dade County, with 340,000 students, is the first large metropolitan district to do so.

Alex Annunziato, the president of the district's student government association, said last week that he and his organization support the policy.

"We wanted to ensure that results could not be used against the student and that students would not be penalized," said Mr. Annunziato, a 17-year-old senior at Miami Coral Park Senior High School. "The student government is totally behind this initiative."

He said the new program respects students' rights, and added that "parents have a fundamental right to know what is going on in their students' lives."

But the district's PTA, which represents 850,000 parents, opposes the policy. The Dade County Council, the governing body for all of the district's PTA units, has taken the position that such testing is a job for parents, not schools.

"We shouldn't burden the system with responsibilities that belong to the parents," said Carlos Seales, the council's president. "The funds would be better spent in the schools."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida also opposes the policy.

Any sort of suspicionless drug test is questionable, said Andy Kayton, the legal director for the Miami-based organization. Although the program's use of parental consent is an interesting element, Mr. Kayton said, it leaves out of the loop the most important person--the student.

Mr. Annunziato argued that the program deserves a chance.

"If students are not benefiting, I'll be the first person to say so," the senior said. "But I think this will have a positive outcome if it helps a student get back on track."

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