HILLSBOROUGH: Random drug testing to remain at high school

Citing will of the public, board votes to continue, 6-3

By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
   A majority of Hillsborough’s Board of Education said it couldn’t ignore the public’s will.
   So the school board decided, 6-3, Monday night to continue the district’s random drug testing policy.
   The testing, begun in 2008, opens the possibility of testing for any high school student participating in extra-curricular activities and sports, as well as student drivers who park at the school or an authorized lot. School administrators said that meant tests could be given to up to 94 percent of high school students.
   Voting to continue the ban were Dana Boguszewski, Deena Centofanti, Jennifer Haley, Thuy Anh Le, Christopher Pulsifer and Lorraine Soisson. Voting to end the policy were Greg Gillette, board vice president Judy Haas and board president Thomas Kinst.
   Ms. Le noted that 64 percent of the more than 700 parent respondents to a survey on the school’s website said they preferred to keep the testing program.
   Before the vote, the board heard four speakers say they wanted to see the random testing continue. One woman, Mary Fougere, who said she lived across from the high school, gave the board photographs she said she took of students smoking or dealing drugs in her development.
   Another was resident John Bell, a former AM radio morning show disc jockey, who said his experience was that kids were more motivated by the fear of being caught and punished than having a privilege taken away.
   The third was Anna Mahler, a student assistance counselor at the middle school, who said random drug testing was an extension of the education students receive in lower grades.
   Jake Cohen, the high school student representative to the school board, said students were for random drug testing, but wanted it to apply to all students, not just 10 percent of the school population. To be effective, there had to be more “legitimate fear” of being caught, he said.
   Ms. Le, chair of the education committee, said a legal opinion from the board’s attorney was that tests for all students would open the board to legal suits.
   Ms. Haley said she wished for a multi-pronged approach, but a student dropping out of activities to avoid a testmight set off an alarm and trigger a conversation with parents and student. She said she heard from parents that the program helped them do their job, and hadn’t heard anyone claim the school shouldn’t get involved.
   Ms. Centofanti, a nurse by profession, said she didn’t think random testing worked, and that the efficacy rate of tests was misleading because of the potential for false positive results. She said she believed parents felt testing “was a safety net.
   ”Whether it’s our job to have a safety net will always be up for debate,” she said.
   Dr. Soisson said she believed “parents want the tool.” She said she thought parents wanted their kids to decide that band, sports or an activity was too important to them than doing drugs. Indeed, it might kids an “out” from peer pressure to do drugs, she said.
   Mr. Gillette said he opposed random drug testing because court decisions told him it was a borderline constitutional issue. The reason why 90 percent of New Jersey schools don’t have random testing, he said, was “it doesn’t work and it’s not a deterrent.”
   He said Ms. Fougere’s photos, as well as discarded plastic bottles she said teens were using as bongs, showed there was a problem despite the presence of testing. He said the school couldn’t point to a decline in a drug use because of the testing.
   He said he would prefer the school use the money from testing (estimated at about $10,000 for 200 tests a year) and half the salary of a school nurse to finance a third student assistance counselor and for greater education to coaches and teachers to recognize students who need help — “not this feel-good policy to make us feel like we did something,” he said.
   Ms. Boguszewski said she had seen numerous youngsters who had overdosed in her work as an emergency room nurse. She agreed with Mr. Gillette that there might be constitutional issues, but asked rhetorically, “How can I go against my community? This is what we’re here to do.”
   Mr. Gillette said the community wants leaders who know more than the average citizen.
   ”Some members will follow what the public says and others will do some leading,” he said.
   Mr. Pulsifer said the testing surveys were not scientifically sound, but asked rhetorically, “Why would we get rid of a tool to deal with a problem we know we have?” He said the policy sent a message that the board will do what it can to fight drug abuse.
   Yet Ms. Haas the program did nothing to address kids trying drugs in the summer, when they time on their hands, or prepared them for when they went to college. What was needed was education and counseling, she said.
   ”Our police are not allowed to test a criminal without a probable cause yet the school district can send 200 kids to the nurse’s office,” she said.
   The drug policy did nothing to address students’ attraction to alcohol, which she said was a bigger problem.