Public school
drug tests supported
by prosecutor

But others question the need

By Susan Essoyan and Rosemarie Bernardo

Senate President Robert Bunda's call for drug testing of public school students received enthusiastic support from the city prosecutor yesterday, but others expressed surprise at the proposal and questioned its necessity.

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"I think the concept is fantastic. The earlier we start, the better," city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle said.

"The idea is not to rip these kids out, kick them out of school. The whole idea is to figure out who has a problem and fix it," he said.

In his opening-day speech at the Legislature yesterday, Bunda called for the pilot drug-testing program, citing a New Orleans effort that involves screening, detection and treatment. Asked afterward if it would apply to all students or just those suspected of illegal activity, he said he leaned toward the former.

"We need to start weeding them out before they become actual users, try to head them off in school," he said. "But it's up to the senators and representatives to look at this program. I think it's a priority; they may not."

"I don't mind my kids being tested," he added, noting that the test would use hair samples.

The New Orleans program started in 1998 and now involves several private and public high schools, according to a fact sheet prepared by the New Orleans district attorney's office.

About 60 strands of hair are taken from each student's head for the sample. The test can detect drug use for the past 90 days, including cocaine, marijuana, PCP, opiates and amphetamines.

The private schools in the program randomly test all students. The public schools test students involved in athletics or those whose parents have requested it.

"It's voluntary," said Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan. "Schools are not required to do so. The parents in the particular school must agree to have the testing in place at the school."

In June 2002, in Board of Education vs. Earls, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a school district's requirement that middle and high school students consent to urinalysis testing for drugs to participate in extracurricular activities. Another case is pending before the court on whether tests can be used on the student population as a whole.

Bunda's suggestion that all students be tested caught some of his colleagues off guard.

"I think the Senate president is trying to come up with an out-of-the-box way to approach the drug problem," said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. "However, the issue raises concerns about constitutional rights, search and seizure, and privacy."

Gov. Linda Lingle, who attended opening-day festivities, was reluctant to comment without knowing more details of Bunda's proposal.

"I'd have to learn a lot more about it," she said. "It really depends. Do they mean testing once a kid got into trouble? Would it be like stopping people and testing for drunken driving? I don't want to prejudge."

Karen Knudsen, vice chairwoman of the Board of Education, said the issue of drug testing in the schools has not surfaced as a priority and requires careful review.

"I'm not comfortable with students being picked out for random drug testing unless we see that it's a real need," she said.

"I'd want to go to our principals and schools and PTAs and have more of a community dialogue. Is this a top priority? Then let's put resources here. But it hasn't really come up to us yet."

Vanessa Chong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, denounced the notion of random drug testing and noted that it could run afoul of the Hawaii Constitution, which provides greater privacy protection than other states.

"Sen. Bunda should talk to the experts," she said. "Examine the facts. We think he can only conclude that drug testing as a drug-abuse reduction method is a failure. It will turn law-abiding students into suspects."

Carlisle contended that dramatic action is needed to prevent children from following their parents into drugs, and the program is meant to be curative.

"We have this enormous 'ice' problem," he said. "We have children whose parents are addicts. We have to have a way to help them before they begin a life of addiction."

In his speech, Bunda also called for amending the Department of Education's disciplinary code to "bring it in line with the state's penal code, to give consistency to school discipline." He also said educators should be given information about the criminal histories of their students, now denied them because of statutory restrictions.

"I think the administration is really hamstrung," he said after his speech as well-wishers lined up to greet him. "What you have is a system that really lets the drug abusers go."

Lingle applauded Bunda's emphasis on discipline, saying that "restoring discipline in the public schools is very, very important." She said her top education priority this session will be to persuade legislators to put a constitutional amendment before voters to allow creation of local school boards.

In his opening-day speech, House Speaker Calvin Say said parents and community members should have more say in the operation of their neighborhood schools, but expressed strong reservations about multiple school boards.

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