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Wednesday, 27 September 2006 00:00

Let the at-risk kids compete

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It probably shouldn’t have gotten to me. But it did, in a big way.

 

My daughter runs cross country for her high school. A couple of weeks ago she brought home a form from her coach, the “Student Drug Testing Consent Form.” It informed her and us that she would have to agree to random drug testing in order to compete. I was incensed.

But I signed it. I also sent along a note protesting the notion of students — any students, for that matter — being asked to pee in a cup so drug users won’t get to play on any of the school teams or take part in other competitive extracurricular activities.

That’s really what this boils down to. No one is against measures that will curtail drug use among teens and young adults. This just isn’t one of them. Instead, it is more likely to deter student participation in activities that provide a positive experience and that could eventually lead a teen-ager to decided against casual or recreational drug use.

Instead, too many school systems have taken the simplistic approach of initiating “voluntary” drug testing programs that have become increasingly popular in this age of zero tolerance. Today it’s politically expedient to criticize government interference in our lives when it’s inconvenient — estate taxes and welfare expenditures, for example — but to support draconian measures when they go along with one’s social agenda.

 

The bigger problem

The local school board passed this measure a while back, so its members are in part to blame. But the truth is that the local school board is following a trend that has become popular across the nation. Here in the mountains, it would have probably been political suicide to oppose the policy. Luckily I don’t have to run for office.

Tracing the history of student drug testing reveals a Supreme Court that took a sharp turn just a few years ago. In 1995 the Supreme Court upheld the validity of drug testing for public school athletes. Folks knew such mandatory testing would certainly go against some of the quaint civil liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but it was justified under the guise of protecting the athletes. Stoned kids would get hurt playing football. The testing was also supported by those who proclaimed the student-athletes were “role models.”

In 2002, the high court went even further and upheld the logic that led to the “voluntary” form my daughter brought home last week. Since schools couldn’t force all students to submit to random tests — that darn Constitution — schools began “voluntary” and random testing procedures and expanded the list of extracurricular activities which were included.

Anyone who wants to run track or take part in marching band competitions has to sign the form and agree to random testing. Parents will be informed before any test takes place, but all a kid has to do is refuse to take the test and they are done, “ineligible” to participate. Don’t sign the form to begin with and the debate ends there because the student won’t get to participate.

Some school systems are beginning to back off from these “voluntary” drug-testing policies. A district in Oklahoma recently rescinded a policy similar to the one in place in Haywood County schools. “Our reason was, how many kids are not going out for extracurricular activities because they’re afraid of being tested? If they’re not in school, they’d be out on the streets. If we could pull more kids in extracurricular activities where there’s a little more supervision, then they wouldn’t be on the streets where they can pick up drug habits,” said one school official.

 

One size fits all

This country is obsessed with trying to make things simple. Sometimes, though, we simply make matters worse.

In the 1990s states began passing the habitual offender laws, better know as “three strikes and you’re out.” These measures followed a path of flawed logic similar to that of the random, voluntary drug testing. Offenders who committed three felonies automatically received long prison terms. It was simple, straightforward, and would deter criminals from dedicating themselves to a life of crime. It made political sense to put repeat offenders behind bars rather than arrest them over and over. Some people just can’t function in society, supporters of these measures said.

Soon the problems revealed themselves. What if one offense was for armed robbery but the second two were for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine, or even marijuana? That’s three felonies, but a 25-year sentence for someone who had drugs for personal use makes no sense.

Oh yeah, and what about that guy’s girlfriend, who has his three kids and who was getting a child support check every month? Now her child support is behind bars, the state picks up the tab for her, the kids and dad, and it’s not doing anybody any good.

The tragedy at Columbine has led to zero tolerance policies for weapons at schools. It all makes perfect sense, but what about the kid who accidentally brings his pocketknife to class and is suspended. Makes no sense.

 

The need for reason

When we take away the ability of judges, principals and teachers to use intellect and reason when confronting the facts of a particular situation, mistakes will happen. Some students caught with a knife at school ought to be suspended, but others might be better served by in-school suspension or perhaps a call to the aunt who acts as the caregiver.

Unfortunately, in today’s America giving responsible professionals the ability to make these kinds of decisions is incorrectly labeled being “weak on crime” or “soft.” “We must stand tough,” say the rule makers. “No exceptions,” they shout. Hogwash.

Especially with young people, the ability to tailor punishment to fit not only the transgression but also the moment in life is absolutely important. It makes no sense to enforce a one-size-fits all discipline plan.

 

Back to the policy

We all remember them. The teens who took risks, who flaunted caution. When I was growing up in the 1970s it was drug use and sex that were the most risqué behaviors, but there were also the dangers of driving cars too fast or jumping off the highest waterfall. Not much has changed. There are still tall cliffs and shallow water, fast cars and sharp curves, new and even more dangerous drugs, and ever-more lenient attitudes toward sex. Being a teen or a young adult is fraught with risks.

After this most daring group, though, fell a broad swath that included most students. Among those were the mildly deviant, the quarterback who occasionally smoked pot on the weekends, the cheerleaders who snuck into mom’s pill bottle, or the chess club president who experimented with LSD. Most all of these ended up becoming adults who contributed to society in a positive way.

But what would have happened if they had been ensnared by a random drug test? Or, what if the quarterback decided against going out for the team for fear of being caught? He would have gone without the positive influence of that tough-love coach who showed him that he could be somebody. He could, instead, have ended up hanging out with the druggies and gone totally over the edge.

These “voluntary” drug-testing programs, in reality, do more for the adults who pass them and talk about them than for the students they are meant to protect. In truth, they are a little ridiculous and more than a little naïve. They do more to deter participation in character-building activities than they do to deter drug use. All snake oil and tonic instead of real medicine.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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