School officials weigh pros, cons of drug-testing student-athletes

It was just a year ago that Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School athletic director Mike Allen was contemplating whether he should recommend to the school’s administration and board members that the drug-testing program for student-athletes be continued.

Allen understood the benefits of drug testing, but he also realized it was yet another bill for a school that must keep a close eye on its budget in a cash-strapped state. So he thought about it, weighing the pros and cons of a program that had been in place since 2007.

Then one of the GCMS student-athletes made the decision easy on him.

“Our kids had an exchange program down at one of the Champaign schools, and on the way back I heard them talking,” Allen recalled. “One of the kids in Champaign had been talking about how there were a lot of drugs in the schools. One of our kids said, ‘Aren’t you guys drug tested?’ And they said no. (Our kid) says, ‘Well we are, and it’s a good way for us to be able to say no.’

“At that moment, I said, ‘It’s worth it.’”

Such is the debate now facing the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district. At a Nov. 16 meeting, the school board directed Superintendent Cliff McClure to draft a policy that would subject every high school student-athlete to random drug testing.

The proposed program would probably call to test for the likes of marijuana, cocaine, barbiturates and synthetic marijuana commonly known as “K2” or “pep spice, PBL High School athletic director John Overstreet has said, with those testing positive facing a suspension as set forth by the school’s handbook.

Though it’s still early in the process — most likely, the policy wouldn’t be voted on until the spring — it’s safe to say the idea is gaining momentum at PBL.

McClure is in favor of the idea, saying, “From a school perspective, I don’t see a lot of downsides.”
Overstreet sees the benefits, as well, and has contacted many athletic directors throughout the state whose schools have implemented such programs, and all the feedback has been positive, he said.

Of the school board’s stance, board member Mike Short said previously, “I didn’t hear anything at the committee meeting that indicated the board was substantially opposed to it … I heard a lot of positives.”

A deterrent
The chief positive, from those who have experience with drug-testing programs, is clear: It’s a deterrent.

The point, as Allen said, isn’t to catch those who abuse drugs and suspend them. It’s to get student-athletes to stay away from drugs in the first place, which is a significant moral responsibility of any school, said El Paso-Gridley school district Superintendent Rick Johnston.

“You got to give kids one more reason to stay away from bad situations,” said Johnston, whose district in central Illinois has had a drug-testing program since 2004 when the El Paso and Gridley districts consolidated (El Paso had a program before then). “If we can do that within the financial constraints that we have, we as schools ought to be trying to do whatever we can do.”

Just like Allen, Johnston has his own anecdotal evidence for why drug testing is worth it. Earlier in his educational career, he was coaching basketball at a high school in Indiana. Late in the season, the star senior who was averaging more than 20 points a game made one too many bad decisions and was suspended for the remainder of the year. The next season, the returning players came to Johnston and expressed their desire that there would drug testing for all of them.

“They didn’t want to go by the whole year worrying about the guy next to them, of whether or not he’s going to be there,” said Johnston, adding that a testing program was implemented.

The stories of Allen and Johnston reveal a couple ways in which drug testing can be a difficult topic for a school to address. As with the idea of any deterrent, it’s hard to weigh just how well it’s working. There’s no factual means to count the number of kids who decided against using, say, marijuana on a Friday night because they knew they could be subject to a drug test on Monday morning.

IHSA numbers
The best factual data available doesn’t shed light on the idea of a deterrent. Rather, the numbers the Illinois High School Association has released from its testing program for performance-enhancing drugs that all sports are subject to at the state series level show that student-athletes are rarely testing positive for drugs.

During the past two school years, the IHSA conducted 1,758 tests, according to a Springfield-Journal Register article published near the start of the school year. Four students tested positive during the 2010-2011 school year, although two were cleared by a medical review officer. The two cases that weren’t cleared were the first two punishable offenses in program’s short history.

(For privacy reasons, neither GCMS nor EP-G would say how many, or if any, student-athletes had ever tested positive in their programs.)

Because of all that, it raises the question: Is such a program worth the cost at a time when the state is shorting schools on funding?

Costs of program
At EP-G, the money set aside for drug testing varies from year to year. In recent years, it’s cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, with a third party randomly testing anywhere from quarterly to once per month, Johnston said.

As reference in drawing up its own policy that will be voted on, PBL has looked at the drug-testing program at GCMS, which budgets $4,000 per year to randomly test about 10 student-athletes per month, Allen said. Each urine sample costs $35, and GCMS is also responsible for paying mileage to the officials from Carle Clinic who administer the tests.

Currently, McClure said, the PBL school district is owed $206,774.10 of revenue by the state, which is why every new cost is a concern. Still, McClure said, the focus will be on the positives drug testing can provide and not on how much it would potentially cost.

“The amount of impact it could have, it wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive,” McClure said. “It wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive if we felt strongly enough to do it.”

Even though McClure points out that drug testing is becoming more prevalent in Illinois high schools, it doesn’t appear to be the norm in this area. Of PBL’s fellow Sangamon Valley Conference members, only St. Thomas More has a drug-testing program, and it’s not aimed just at athletes. Every single student in the SVC’s lone private school is subject to testing.

What other SVC schools are doing
Of the 14 schools in the Heart of Illinois Conference, Allen only knew of the aforementioned two schools, GCMS and EP-G, as those that have drug-testing programs.

Further information on a state-wide basis wasn’t available; the IHSA’s testing program is applied only at the state series level (not during the regular season), and a representative said the organization doesn’t track how many schools have such programs of their own year-round and therefore couldn’t estimate what percentage of schools in the state test student-athletes for drugs.

Another reason drug testing could face opposition is because it can be viewed as a sensitive topic, an unnecessary invasion of privacy of sorts.

“Just the research I’ve done on it, preparing stuff for our school board and taking my administration classes, there can be a fear. It’s a touchy subject. Freedom of people’s rights are up for grabs,” Allen said. “As a school district, you must show that you have a sufficient reason to want this testing. The courts will back you up if you do that.”

The most difficult part to implementing a drug-testing program would likely be at the beginning, Johnston said. That’s when those opposing a drug-testing program will be most concerned and thus most vocal, quite possibly with the invasion-of-privacy argument. Those “won’t be the masses” though, said Johnston, and PBL officials said they would hold a public forum to hear and help quell those with concerns.

For the SVC schools that don’t have drug-testing programs, it appears there are two main reasons why. Officials from St. Joe-Ogden, Watseka and Iroquois West said there have been some good discussions at their respective schools on implementing such a program, but costs are holding them back. Officials from CPCI, Momence and Clifton Central said there hasn’t been much discussion at all, mostly because there doesn’t seem to be a need yet.

Like everywhere else, it’s hard at PBL for school officials to pinpoint how much of a need there is for a drug-testing program. Nonetheless, they are having serious discussions about being proactive in this matter because, as McClure pointed out, “It’s another way to keep kids safe.”

Many of those who oversee drug-testing programs for student-athletes agree wholeheartedly with those sentiments.
 

“The public and the parents and the athlete need to look at it as a deterrent, just one more reason to say no,” Johnston said. “If we could give kids a reason to say no, why wouldn’t we do it?”

 

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