This startling statistic, coupled with the rise in overdose deaths of Hopewell Valley alumni, has prompted Superintendent Thomas Smith to take action.
On April 11, the Hopewell Valley Regional School District held its first town hall meeting to discuss a proposed new policy of random student drug testing for the 2018-2019 high school year.
The event, which drew roughly 40 people in person and about the same amount on a Facebook Live stream, was advertised by Smith through an e-mail sent to parents.
“I think we got some good feedback about folks’ feelings about privacy concerns,” Smith said in an interview conducted afterward. “I understand that as a parent and as a school administrator, it’s not an easy recommendation to make.”
The proposed new policy would be carried out via a lottery. Each student would be assigned a random identification number. Every week, roughly six students will be selected by a third party organization to participate in a drug test.
Students will be called down to the nurse’s office and tested for a panel of drugs via a urine sample. The Board of Education will decide which drugs will be tested for, but a typical panel would include marijuana, opioids and cocaine along with other illegal drugs. The panel may also rotate, so as to include a wide variety of substances.
It has not been determined whether or not alcohol will be included in the test.
As of now, no new policy has been implemented as it is awaiting review of the school board which is scheduled to have its second read-through of the policy on May 21.
“We really want to be transparent,” Smith said. He added, “This is not something that I particularly enjoy, making this recommendation to the Board of Education. However, we’re faced with a situation that makes us inclined to take action.”
* * * * *
According to Smith’s presentation, which is available for view on the district’s Facebook page, students who have valid prescriptions will not be considered to have a positive screens.
The New Jersey Administrative Code states that only students who participate in extracurricular activities, have parking permits or opt to participate in the program can be tested. This group accounts for over 90 percent of students at Hopewell Valley High School.
If random drug testing were implemented, and a student were to decline to be tested, that student would be unable to participate in extracurricular activities.
A student who tests positive will be required to attend a minimum of five counseling sessions with the student assistance counselor within 30 days.
If a student were to be tested and the the results of the test are negative, that student’s number will not go back into the pool of numbers to be selected. If a student tests positive, they can expect to be re-tested in the future, to make sure they are no longer using drugs.
A student who tests positive will be required to attend a minimum of five counseling sessions with the student assistance counselor within 30 days. The student may also attend a prevention or education program or sign into and complete a drug or alcohol inpatient rehabilitation program approved by the Department of Health.
In addition, after five counseling sessions, the student will be retested. If there is another positive result, the student will then receive consequences like losing parking and the ability to compete or perform in a club or activity.
The results will be confidential and will not be included in a student’s discipline file. However, if a student is found to be in possession of drugs, police will be notified. Urine analyses that come back positive will be confirmed with a second test.
Smith estimates that roughly 20 percent of the student body will be tested throughout the year, or 240 of the school’s 1,200 enrolled students.
Under the current drug and substance abuse policy, if a staff member identifies a student as having suspicious symptoms or behavior, such as glassy eyes or lack of balance, they will report the student to the main office. A school nurse will be called in to perform a physical exam. If determined to be under the influence of drugs, the parents of the student will be notified and the student will be referred to an outside medical facility for testing.
The currently policy is available to view on the Hopewell Valley School District’s website. The main difference between the current drug policy and the proposed new one is the non-punitive nature of the new system. The current “Under Suspicion” drug policy includes all students and can result in consequences like school suspension or removal from extracurricular activities. Additionally, any violations would be included in the student’s discipline file.
However, one problem with the current policy is that an out-of-school suspension gives the students free time to continue using drugs.
The proposed new system, in addition to a non-punitive approach, will put more emphasis on rehabilitation and recovery of the individual who tests positive. Results from the random drug test will be kept confidential and no law enforcement officers will be informed when a student tests positive. No academic suspensions will take place, nor will teachers, colleges or employers be notified. A student who tests positive will not be suspended from school but may be removed from extra-curricular activities.
“Our goal is not a malicious one, it is to protect our kids,” Smith said. “We could pretend we don’t have a problem or we could do something about it.”
The main goal of the new policy is to act as a deterrent to students. It will provide students with another reason to say no drugs and avoid potential peer pressure.
This new program is “strictly for rehabilitation. It is not punitive in any way. It is to make sure the students are getting the counseling and help they need,” principal Tana Smith in an interview.
When asked what effects the new policy would have on teachers, Tana Smith said it would be minimal.
The high school already has several programs in place to prevent drug use among its students. This new policy will be an additional tool, that when used in conjunction with other programs, will hopefully reduce drug use among students.
The school currently employs two Student Assistance Counselors, who provide confidential counseling for teens with substance abuse problems. Typically a high school only employs one Student Assistance Counselor.
In addition, student programs like Teen PEP, which deals with substance abuse; PANDA, an organization that works to prevent the use of drugs and alcohol; and TATU, a teens against tobacco use organization, all currently function at the high school.
Despite this, according to several recent studies, Hopewell Valley High School had 24 violations of its drug policy during the 2016-2017 school year, making it the 7th school district with the highest increase in substance abuse cases in New Jersey.
Twenty-five staff members are currently trained to administer NARCAN, the revival medication commonly used on those who have overdosed on opioids.
* * * * *
The new policy was first introduced in an open letter from Smith published on the school’s website, addressed to students and parents.
The letter outlined the reasons for the proposed new policy and stated, “While some individuals may be uncomfortable with this direction, if this policy can save one student from traveling down a dangerous path, give one student a reason to say no, or help one student get early help, it is worth it.”
According to one study cited by Smith in his proposal to the school board, random student drug testing is effective in diminishing overall drug use among high schoolers.
In 1999, Hunterdon Central High School implemented a similar policy and, the results, “showed that of the 28 categories of drug use evaluated by the survey, drug use went down in 20 categories.”
Furthermore, following a three-year suspension of the random drug testing program due to litigation, survey results showed drug use was up in 18 of the 28 categories compared to the 1999 data that show decreases, Smith told the board.
‘I think it is very difficult in social studies class to talk about the Bill Of Rights then to pull a child out of that class to be tested in a manner that violates one of those basic rights.’
The proposed policy is controversial, and opinions have been mixed among parents and students who would be affected.
During the town hall Q&A session, several members of the audience, which comprised mostly of parents and families, brought up points pertaining to the efficacy, legality, and privacy concerns of the program.
One resident said, “If a student tests positive for drugs you have no way of knowing where the infraction took place…If it took place outside of school grounds, the school has no jurisdiction to enforce any kind of disciplinary action.”
He continued: “I do not believe it is the school’s responsibility to take that upon themselves. This is the parents’ responsibility.”
“I think it is very difficult in social studies class to talk about the Bill Of Rights then to pull a child out of that class to be tested in a manner that violates one of those basic rights,” he said to conclude his comment.
Another resident who identified himself as a physician by trade cited a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2015 which opposed random drug testing in schools.
“I find it really appalling that the school district would take a stance that is opposite of the physicians who care for our children,” he said. “I just cannot see this as being the way we want to go.”
Smith responded to the concern by noting that the school is aware of the study and has “spoken to our school physician and other pediatricians in the area who support this.”
Yet, members of the audience expressed displeasure at the thought of their children living and a “surveillance society,” where they are comfortable with their privacy being infringed upon.
Other objections to the program include the inefficacy of the tests, privacy violations, and a negative impact on the climate of the school. Others might say that this issue is the responsibility of parents, not school officials.
In response to concerns, Smith stated, “We are going to monitor the program for any adverse effects,” such as decreased participation in sports, potentially deteriorating teacher-student relationships, increase in substance abuse of those not included in the panel, and investigating any breaches of confidentiality.
The projected costs of the implementation of the policy are minimal, Smith said. At a price of around 10 to 15 dollars per urinalysis, and an additional $50 to have the test confirmed by a third party, the total cost would range from $2400 to $3600 annually. The budget for the district is currently $80 million, Smith said.
A report of the statistics yielded from the program would be presented to the Board of Education on an annual basis. In addition, surveys will be conducted among the participants to determine any adverse effects.
At the town hall, Smith said, “there was acknowledgment by all that we’re struggling with drugs in our high school, like most high schools in America…This is a pretty significant step in addressing the problem.”
A second town hall where the issue will be discussed further is scheduled for early May.