The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Drug test policy review team is seeking input

Superintendent says public needs to weigh in on school district's existing policy


A public meeting held to review the school district's existing student drug testing policy heavily focused on current prevention efforts and was light on discussion of the actual policy.

The meeting, with a panel that included the district's resource officer from the Valdez Police Dept., school counselors and principals, asked attendees to join a review committee of the policy, asked community members to join a review committee.

"I'm hoping for a mid-March update," Superintendent Jim Nygaard said in an interview Monday afternoon. "Input is certainly requested."

The push to review the current policy comes on the heels of the indefinite postponement of a proposed policy that would have subjected all students grades 6-12 that participate in school activities to submit to random in-house drug testing.

The drug testing policy already on the books, which was first passed by the board of education in 2005, calls for district employees to be trained in methods that detect signs of drug abuse by a student's demeanor and other criteria.

Nygaard said he is not comfortable with the policy and its consequences.

"Some of them make me squirm," he said at the meeting. "The first time I read it my knees started to shake. I said 'holy cow.'"

The policy calls for suspension of students failing drug tests, loss of school credit and other measures that a number of critics say will not foster educating students with substance abuse issues.

Rod Morrison, principal of Gilson Middle School, talked about problems he had encountered enforcing the policy.

"I think it had great intentions," he said at the meeting, but executing the policy in the real world was not as well thought out as it could have been.

Despite training, Morrison said he is still not comfortable with a student eye-testing component of the program, and noted other problems as well.

"We've used it in the middle school," he said. "I'm still not comfortable with it."

Morrison said that he had 10 students referred for drug testing since the policy's passage. Of the ten, only five actually tested positive for drug use.

It is unknown if the five that did not test positive were under the influence of a drug not included in the test or if they were free of substance abuse.

Morrison also criticized the policy's requirement that students be tested at a medical facility, saying it is a lengthy and conspicuous process that does not foster anonymity for the student.

He favors substituting an in-house test such as the saliva-based test that was pushed by Nygaard in support of the unpopular random drug testing program, saying the urine test administered at the medical clinic can take two to three weeks before results are available. The in-house saliva test gives results in less than 10 minutes.

He also noted discrepancies that had occurred, such as a different set of consequences that was on the books for sixth graders that did not mesh with those for seventh and eighth graders when the school changed from a junior high to a middle school.

"It caused a lot of turmoil," he said.

A number of audience members, many of whom had spoken out against the random drug policy, spoke in favor of positive motivation for students during the panel discussion on current drug avoidance efforts at the middle and high schools.

"Reward the students for being what you want them to be," one speaker said, a theme that recurred throughout the discussion.

Members of the public that would like to be on the committee or give input into the policy should contact school administration Nygaard said after the meeting.

One question hanging after the meeting remains: is a drug testing policy really needed?

Valdez Star photo

A panel met the public last week to talk about the school district's anti-drug efforts. From left to right: Aaron Baczuk, Gianna Giusti, Kyra Meyer and Rod Morrison. Not pictured: Rod Schug and Lea Cockerham.

School officials at the meeting noted a lack of hard data specific to the schools and urged parents to allow students to take an optional survey administered by Alaska school districts, the Youth Risk Behavior Study.

Nygaard said that if less than half of the high school's population takes the test, the district does not receive school specific data back from the state, only generic information on Alaska students as a whole.

Past school officials have questioned the accuracy of the survey. Nygaard favors the survey.

"We hope students are being honest" when taking the survey he said.

The full text of the current policy under review can be found on the district's website, under the Board of Education tab.


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