Mid-Pacific weighs
voluntary drug tests

Students would then resist peer
pressure, advocates contend

Families at Mid-Pacific Institute could soon be asked whether they want their children to be tested for drug use under a confidential, voluntary program that would be a first in Hawaii.

A tool for family communication

Highlights of the voluntary drug testing program being considered by Mid-Pacific Institute:

» All middle and high school students would be invited to participate.

» Students would be tested only if both they and their parents agreed.

» Students would be selected randomly to provide urine samples.

» The drug testing company would notify only parents of test results.

» School staff would not know the results of the tests.

» There would be no sanctions at school for failing a drug test.

About 70 parents heard a strong pitch for the program at a forum Tuesday at the Manoa campus, and by the end of the evening, most raised their hands to indicate they were ready to sign up. The school has 1,320 students.

"So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," said Mid-Pacific President Joe Rice. "People do have individual concerns. ... I want to take the time to get the word out. In the best world, we'd like to start second semester if we have the support."

The nonpunitive program would be modeled on one begun at San Clemente High School, a public school in California, two years ago. At San Clemente all families must sign a form indicating whether they want to participate, and students are tested only if both they and their parents consent.

An outside company collects the urine samples during school hours and reports the results only to the parents. School staff does not know who tests positive, and there are no sanctions at school for a failed test.

Jon Hamro, a vice principal at San Clemente, told the Mid-Pac parents he sees two chief benefits to the system: It forces every family to discuss drugs, and it gives students an excuse to resist peer pressure to use drugs. About 1,500 of the 3,200 students at the school now submit to testing, he said.

"People will say, 'Only the good kids signed up, the other ones didn't,'" Hamro said. "That doesn't matter to me. What I care about is you're having a conversation with your son or daughter about drugs, in the home where it should be. And second, you're empowering them to say no."

The urine tests detect illegal drugs but not alcohol because it dissipates too quickly, Hamro said. About 6 percent of students tested have tested positive, a lower percentage than anticipated, he said. He said he had no data -- either from student surveys or disciplinary records -- to show whether drug use on his campus had changed since the program began.

City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, a Mid-Pacific parent, and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona urged the group to be the first to try the program here, saying if one school adopts it, others will follow.

Aiona said he would like to see it in public schools, too.

"When can we start?" called out one mother. "I'm worried about my 16-year-old son."

Mid-Pacific parent and school nurse Terry Bruesehoff was also gung-ho. She already gives her kids regular drug tests.

"They see it as a good deterrent," she said.

But a few parents opposed the proposal. Gerald Brouwers, a clinical psychologist with a daughter in eighth grade, said he thought it was "overkill."

"I didn't see anything that would lead me to support the idea," he said. "There wasn't any evidence that this would work. In terms of prevention, building the family is more important than monitoring."

"Rather than drug testing, we would be better served to put resources toward increasing communication and family stability," he said. Evidence shows that having teenagers participate in sports and eat dinner with their families, for example, helps steer them away from abusing drugs, he said.

Rice said he hoped to line up corporate sponsors to cover the cost of the tests. Hamro said the initial screening costs $25 a test, and if it comes back positive, a more extensive test costing up to $80 follows.

"A lot of companies would like to provide this service in the schools, not just to heavy-equipment operators," Rice said. "We would initially not be charging the parents."

The issue of drug testing in schools surfaced in Hawaii in January 2003, when Senate President Robert Bunda called for a pilot program in the public schools. It quickly died at the Legislature.

Critics argued that testing students invades their privacy, creates an adversarial relationship and diverts funds better spent on treatment and prevention. They also pointed to research that shows no difference in rates of drug abuse between schools that have testing programs and those that do not.

During the 2002-2003 school year, the Academy of the Pacific and Saint Louis School began employing a drug-sniffing dog. The canines sniff backpacks, cars and lockers but not the students themselves.



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