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Board drops drug-testing plan

By Jennifer Roach
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2012
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The Westborough School Committee created a storm of controversy in town when it voted to adopt a new student drug-testing policy last month.

But after four weeks of fierce scrutiny, the new policy has been dumped as quickly as it was enacted.

The policy, approved at an April 25 School Committee meeting, gave district administrators the authority to request that a student submit to a voluntary test, involving an oral saliva swab, if he or she was suspected of being under the influence of drugs while on Westborough High School grounds.

The policy already allowed school officials to administer breathalyzer tests to students thought to be under the influence of alcohol when no other actions are available.

Criticism from community members opposing the drug-testing policy led the School Committee to vote on May 9 to delay the implementation of the new policy until the fall. And at the board’s meeting on May 23, Superintendent Marianne O’Connor recommended that the members vote to retract the policy entirely. The committee followed her advice, on a 4-1 vote.

Discussing the issue in an e-mail, the superintendent wrote that she hopes “to return the focus to how the community can work together to help our students make healthy choices, including avoiding drug and alcohol use.”

School Committee chairwoman Ilyse Levine-Kanji said it was the public outcry, in the form of numerous e-mails and phone calls received by the committee, mostly from parents of current students at the high school, that convinced the board the policy needed a more thorough review.

Levine-Kanji said people focused on issues such as the potential violations of students’ constitutional rights and concerns about the accuracy of swab testing.

Legal and drug-rehabilitation specialists also question the effectiveness of such a drug-testing policy.

Levine-Kanji said she hopes a more thoughtful discussion with the community in the fall will help appease residents angered by the original School Committee decision.

The sudden change of heart did not come as much of a surprise to some residents, who were more surprised to see the approval happen in the first place.

High school junior Maggie Sharma said in an e-mail that “many students and parents were in an uproar about the new policies.

“I personally don’t mind the drug testing,’’ said Sharma, “but many people see it as a violation of civil rights.”

Craig Harris, who ended a nine-year stint on the School Committee last year, said he felt that the testing procedure is not something school administrators should be doing.

“It’s one thing to have a breathalyzer at a dance; it’s another thing to have an oral swab test in school,’’ he said. “It doesn’t belong in the hands of school administrators or employees.”

Harris also said that the committee had failed to do its due diligence, and needed to have a more thorough discussion and debate on the issue before putting it to a vote.

After the board first addressed the topic at its April 11 meeting, there was little discussion and no debate at a public meeting before the new policy was voted in two weeks later.

“If they had a debate at an open meeting, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this position,” Harris said.

Levine-Kanji acknowledges the lack of community involvement, and said she hopes to rectify the problem with a more engaged conversation on the topic with the entire community in the fall.

“Unfortunately, I think the chemical health subcommittee didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of the issue when it made its recommendation, and the School Committee didn’t recognize that complexity when we voted,” she said.

“But we’re not looking to cut off any debate. In the fall we will be having a more thoughtful and methodical discussion on how we may want to revise our chemical health policy, and we will absolutely welcome and invite community involvement in that process.”

Bruce Tretter was the only member of the school board who voted against dropping the new policy. After working on the proposal as a member of the chemical health subcommittee, Tretter said, he feels it was shot down too quickly.

“I thought the policy was a good starting point. We were on the right track and I just want to keep moving forward,” Tretter said. Drug testing “allows the school one more tool. It would only be used on an as-needed basis.”

Tretter said the saliva swab would have only been used as a last resort after extensive inquiry and discussion with the student. He noted the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the town shows a slight decline in alcohol use and a slight increase in use of other substances, such as marijuana and prescription drugs.

The new drug-testing proposal drafted by the subcommittee, he said, was a response to a small but growing problem among town youths.

But Harris said that if plans to reinstate the drug-testing policy come up this fall, he will be urging the School Committee to look elsewhere for solutions to the abuse of illegal substances by students.

“They’d be setting a dangerous precedent,” Harris said. “I’m all for keeping kids safe, but if they suspect drugs or other issues, there are other avenues to explore.’’

Sarah Wunsch, staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that many Massachusetts districts submit students to breathalyzer tests before school-sponsored events such a prom, and that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports in the state, has testing policies in place for student athletes.

The US Supreme Court has deemed random drug testing of middle and high school students participating in competitive extracurricular activities to be constitutional.

Wunsch said she does not know of any Massachusetts school district, however, that has a policy in place for drug-testing members of the general student body.

And though the law may not deem the drug testing of students illegal or unconstitutional, Dr. John Knight, a Children’s Hospital Boston authority on adolescent substance abuse, said he believes that drug and alcohol testing of any kind, under any circumstances, simply isn’t the best approach to ensuring a student’s health and well-being.

“There is no evidence school-based drug testing will work. I’ve seen this system abused many times,” Knight said. “Lab testing is a very scientifically complex issue. It is prone to inaccurate results and interpretation, which can have tragic results for the student. It is very stigmatizing and heartbreaking for those kids falsely accused.”

Knight said students with drug or alcohol problems need clinical attention and guidance from a medical specialist to get the help they need, not pointed fingers and punishment from school authorities.

Wunsch said the ACLU agrees, and said she is happy to see Westborough pull away from the proposal, noting that the district apparently was responsive to the concerns raised by residents.

“We’ve dealt with some school systems that dig in their heels when questioned,” she said. “But all the gimmicks of breathalyzers and saliva-swab tests are unnecessary at school if you have trained adult supervisors.

“Good supervision, good education, and good communication with the parents is the way to go.”

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