Board adopts random drug testing

Discussion continues as community gives their views

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  • Photo by Patricia Keller Kate Romeo is a drug counselor and resident of West Milford. She opposes the school board's newly adopted policy of random drug testing for students.

"We don’t want to fail a student. We don’t want to attend the funeral of a student because we didn’t do what we could do.”
West Milford Superintendent of Schools Dr. James McLaughlin, talking about the district's new drug testing policy

— The West Milford Board of Education approved its new random drug testing policy Tuesday night, where students in the high school who participate in extracurricular activities or have a parking permit will be included in a pool to be drug tested at random.

The board voted 7-2 to adopt the policy. Board Vice President Wayne Gottlieb and Trustee Jim Foody voted against its adoption.

The program is slated to go into effect starting Nov. 4, 2013.

The public speaks both for and against

The discussion about the policy continued Tuesday at the West Milford Board of Education Meeting, with members of the public and Board Trustees expressing divided opinions about the proposed policy and regulation to implement the “Pupil Random Alcohol and Other Drug Testing” (RDT) program at West Milford High School. Several members of the public came to speak on the subject, including a former superintendent of another school district, a drug and alcohol counselor, a Substance Awareness Coordinator who works in Sussex County, parents, and students.

Dr. William Trusheim, retired superintendent of Pequannock Schools, said he applauds the district for addressing the problem of alcohol and drug use in schools. He said Pequannock began an RDT program in response to public outcry for the district to do something to protect students after a student overdosed on drugs and survived with severe brain and bodily damage. That student was Jesse Morella, and the 2004 incident spawned a movement for increased community education and awareness of drug and alcohol abuse. Morella and his family started "Jesse's Journey," where he, his mom and brother visit schools to teach kids what can happen with drug experimentation. Trusheim is part of Jesse's Journey. West Milford had Jesse's Journey speak to both the high school and middle school earlier this year.

He said Pequannock was also the first school district in New Jersey to institute a voluntary random drug testing program in the middle school for grades 6 through 8, in which students are signed up by their parents to participate.

“It becomes a part of the culture of the school,” he said, and was not necessarily as traumatic for students as many may be inclined to believe.

Trusheim said there are two very important factors for the program to be successful: it needs to be truly random and confidentiality/privacy needs to be protected and enforced.

Kate Romeo, a substance awareness coordinator in Sussex County and a resident of West Milford, asked the board to table the measure to discuss the policy more.

“I fear that anyone who has spoken for this policy didn’t read it yet,” Romeo said.

She questioned things such as liability of confidentiality, chain of custody for samples, substance abuse evaluation being suggested but not required, and the possibility of the district needing to be a licensed testing facility.

Skip McLaughlin, executive director of New Life Recovery Center and a drug and alcohol counselor for 27 years, said it is time to implement this.

“RDT is long in the making. People have been asking for it - now is the right time to strike,” he said. In his 23 years here in West Milford, he has found that the ages when kids start experimenting with alcohol and drugs have changed. “It used to be teens 14, 15 and 16 years old had their first use and it was alcohol. Now we see kids starting in sixth grade and their first drug use is marijuana.” He said the RDT program should not be a means to punishment but should be a guide, “another tool in the box” like Jesse’s Journey, to use to help deter kids from using alcohol and other drugs.

Jesse Hackett, a student at West Milford High School said that he was against the RDT program not just for privacy reasons, but because he believes the RDT program will more likely push kids away from experimenting with “softer” drugs, such as marijuana, to “harder” drugs, such as heroin or speed that remain detectable in the body for less time. He said taxpayer money would be better spent on replacing 20-year-old textbooks, like science textbooks referring to flat screen TVs as new inventions and French textbooks that still refer to Francs.

Jen McIntyre, a parent, voiced concerns about false positive test results that could happen with use of common over the counter medications such as Advil, Tylenol and Allerest, multivitamins, herbal and mineral supplements. She also voiced concerns about false negatives - drugs that do not show up in common screenings, saying the program can give parents a false sense of hope.

The board responds

Board Trustee Jim Foody said he would like to take some time and look at all of the issues before adopting a policy.

“There was no real discussion by the board until it was put in front this week and last week,” he said.

Foody suggested the board take time to craft a policy, noting that Vernon took two years to develop and institute their policy. He said he doesn't support the policy at this time, but does support what it is trying to do, which is address the drug problems.

Superintendent James McLaughlin said the policy was put together and an ad-hoc committee discussed it last year. It has been posted on the district's Web site before the school year started for the public to view. He also said West Milford is "late to the game" but the positive side of that is they don't have to develop a policy from scratch. The board's attorney developed the policy for Straus Esmay, the policy development company used by the district. He said the policy has been developed, used in other public school districts such as Lakeland, Pequannock, and Hanover Regional public schools, and was shown to be “tried and true.”

“We will continue to provide a comprehensive drug education program," added McLaughlin. "We will do everything we can to help our students who may be struggling with the challenge of drugs. We don’t want to fail a student. We don’t want to attend the funeral of a student because we didn’t do what we could do.”

Paul D’Urbano, a parent who also spoke last week, said it is clear that drugs are a problem, but the policy would expose completely innocent children to awkward and possibly traumatic positions in which they will be treated like criminals.

“From the moment their number gets picked, they are guilty until proven innocent. If they refuse, he said, it's positive.” He said this is not what our country is based on and he believes it is just wrong in principle. Refusal to test or a positive result takes away a student’s ability to participate in what superintendent McLaughlin said last week is an “intrinsic part of West Milford education.”

D’Urbano said rights for citizens in this country should be protected; but this will serve to take away a student’s ability to be accepted to, or succeed, in college. He said it violated the constitution to test all, so the district is coming as close as possible to full testing all through this program. He said it was “morally wrong and un-American” and the spirit of the policy is what the constitution forbids. He said as elected officials, the Board is not living up to the trust the voters put in them if they pass this policy.

Lou Signorino, West Milford Township Council president, said he hasn’t read the policy himself but has heard the concerns expressed by the public. He said he appreciates the board’s task at hand in trying to implement something that will help the township, but agrees with some of the issues raised by the public, especially that of principle.

“I don’t believe this policy will have the results that we all wish to get from it," said Signorino. "I think there will be more consequences than there will be benefits.”

He asked what choice parents have to opt-out of the policy, adding that this is not something he would want his children to be a part of. He asked what the options were for parents who feel this way. “If you haven’t considered that, maybe you ought to.”

Board President Dave Richards said that a parent approached him last December asking about what the district was going to do about the drug problem in town. The parent mentioned DePaul Catholic School’s “Stand Tall” program which helped the student resist peer pressure with the excuse that they get tested at school. Richards said he looked into it. He said DePaul has random testing daily and that they have 85 percent participation in the program including staff. He said it is very effective and a very good deterrent.

“I am gonna support this. If we can save a handful of kids from starting on drugs, it pays for itself,” Richards said.

He said his employer for over 39 years has an RDT program for employees in which he personally has been tested an average of six times a year. He said even with different labs used over the years, he never had a false positive result and isn’t worried about it. He said reports of false results from sesame/poppy seeds are not true.

Trustee Wayne Gottlieb said he was disturbed by what he heard about research chemicals and said he was going to Google MDMA when he got home.

“There’s always going to be an escape hatch,” he said, referring to bicycle racing as an example. He said the big problem with any drug program is potentially driving users into being even more creative to avoid getting caught. As for confidentiality, he said he has two step children in their 20s and knows that “whatever is going on in school, the kids know 100 percent” so there is no privacy or confidentiality. He said most kids are not using/abusing alcohol and drugs, and they have to weigh the pros and cons- that kids’ privacy rights are being invaded in order to find someone who is using. He said the rights of the majority should outweigh this. “I’m not voting for this” he said.

Gottlieb asked Trusheim if they were testing staff at the same frequency as students. Trusheim said they weren’t because they couldn’t guarantee anonymity and confidentiality for the staff. Gottlieb said, “Does anything that happens to kids remain confidential? No, it is disseminated to everybody.”

In consideration of factors presented by the public, and to allow for more board discussion and community input on the subject, a motion to table the item was made by Foody and seconded by Gottlieb. It failed by a vote of 7-2. The subsequent vote on the policy and regulation was approved, also by a 7-2 vote, with Trustees Foody and Gottlieb voting in opposition to the policy, and board President Richards, Trustees Kevin Babbitt, Greg Bailey, Matt Conlon, Inga Koeppe, Marilyn Schultz, and Donna Richards voting in support of it.

The Messenger requested further information regarding the consequences of a positive screening result, and information on responsibility for payment for required rehabilitation treatment. Policy Committee Chair Matt Conlon responded via email: “The potential consequences for a positive drug test are clearly explained in the policy and regulation (which are available on the district Web site). A refusal to participate in the test once selected at random constitutes a positive result, as per the policy. Rehabilitation costs are at parent expense as per the policy. If a family truly cannot afford to pay for the rehabilitation, the district can assist the family to find an affordable solution.”

What are your thoughts? Let us know below.

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