On December 13th, Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Superintendent, Dr. Tom Smith, sent an email to parents notifying them of his recommendation to the Board of Education that a random substance screen policy be developed for students in grades 9 -12 with a targeted start date of September, 2018.
“My intent for this policy is a philosophical shift from a reactive, punitive approach to a more proactive, therapeutic model. Similar policies have been in place in other local districts for over a decade and the results have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Dr. Smith in the email. This would be the first such policy in Mercer County.
Though policy details are yet to be determined, in accordance with the 2003 N.J. Supreme Court decision in Joye vs. Hunterdon Central Regional High School Board of Education, all students participating in extracurricular activities (i.e. clubs, sports, dances) and those with parking permit privileges would receive a number. A percentage of those students would be randomly selected each week and required to submit a urine sample in the nurse’s office. The sample would be sent to a lab and results reported to the school within a week. Results would be confidential and used to help students, such as students meeting with the high school Student Assistance Coordinator (SAC) and completing an Early Intervention Program. There would be no suspensions. Yearly cost of the test would be approximately $4,000.
Reasonable Suspicion and the Random Substance Screen Policy
Currently, staff members faced with reasonable suspicion that a student has come to school high or in possession of illegal substances have the authority to search the student. If illegal substances are found, the police are notified.
The new screening policy would not be based on suspicion of use or possession and is a random test. Police are not involved if a student tests positive.
A 10-panel urine screen would test for such drugs as amphetamines (i.e. Adderall, Dexedrine), cocaine, opiates (i.e. heroin), methamphetamines (crystal meth), marijuana, benzodiazepines (i.e. Valium, Xanax, Librium, Ativan, Halcion, Diazepam), buprenorphine (i.e. Subxone, Subutex, Temgesic), barbiturates (i.e. Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, Tuinal), methadone, and oxycodone (i.e. Percocet, Perodan, OxyContin, Tylox, Vicodin). Parents of students who have prescriptions for one of the screened medications would notify the nurse ahead of time.
Targeting the Problem
According to Cindy Iarussi, CHS Student Assistance Coordinator, random drug screening “gives the kids a chance to say no without looking bad.” Student Assistant Coordinator positions have existed at Timberlane Middle School (TMS) and Central High School (CHS) for many years in a part-time capacity but were made full-time four years ago. Sue Nissenblatt holds the position at TMS. According to Iarussi, most kids are relieved to have a reason not to use drugs. Before coming to HVRSD eleven years ago, she worked at Hunterdon Central Regional High School where drug use dropped significantly under the policy which had begun in 2000. Both Nissenblatt and Iarussi meet with students, in small groups and individually, who are at risk for substance abuse or are currently using drugs and alcohol. Kids typically “at risk” include students undergoing family struggles (i..e divorce, parent addiction) and mental health issues (i.e. depression, low self-esteem). They take higher level and special education classes, some play sports, and some are in clubs. There is no typical “type” of student. Much of the job is teaching good decision-making skills and referring families to outside resources for additional help.
Drug and alcohol education is built into the health curriculum at CHS and TMS. Additionally, a variety of peer-level programs and clubs exist at the high school, addressing a range of precursors commonly attributed to substance abuse.
“Peer mentoring is more powerful than adults lecturing,” says Iarussi.
Due to the level of interest, clubs like TATU (Teens Against Tobacco Use) that does mentorship in the elementary schools, PANDA (Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse) that does mentorship surrounding issues of body image and self-esteem at Timberlane Middle School (TMS), Leadership Corps where upper class students mentor 9th grade students to ease their transition into the high school, and the Little Big Mentor Program that meets monthly at TMS for breakfast, giving high school students time with middle school students that struggle socially, require applications. Lastly, CHS offers Teen PEP (Prevention Education Program), a peer education program where seniors meet with sophomores to discuss sex education.
Dr. Smith is more than aware that such a policy is controversial but believes the issue worth tackling.
“It’s not about catching kids being bad. It’s about providing support. If a kid is coming to school under the influence, they need help,” said Smith. “Parents, mainly of elementary-aged students, see the district crossing a line better left to parents, while parents of high school-aged students say, ‘We need all the help we can get.'”
Though no overdose deaths have occurred in the high school, a few HVRSD graduates, in their early 20s, have died and according to Dr. Smith, “Their drug use began at CHS.”
Before adoption of the proposed policy, two public information sessions will be scheduled this spring where details of the proposed policy will be shared. For more information, click here to read a district-provided FAQ.