The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Tuesday, March 9, 1999


Is drug testing the wave of the future?


(photo illustration
by Jean Neice/Herald)


By Jeff Greenburg
Herald Sports Editor

A 1996 survey conducted by the Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education estimated that one in four high school seniors use an illegal drug once a month; one in five use weekly; and one in 10 use daily.

More recent statistics provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving reveal, not unexpectedly, that alcohol-related numbers are even higher.

According to the National High School Senior Survey, 90 percent of seniors reported they had tried alcohol, with 51 percent having used alcohol in the previous month. Even more disturbing? Sixty-seven percent of 8th-graders surveyed had tried alchohol, with 25 percent having used it in the previous month.

Needless, to say the statistics are staggering. Some might even call it a national epidemic. It appears, at least looking at the numbers, however, that epidemic hasn't reached Mercer County schools, or, more specifically, the athletes in those schools.

A recent survey of Mercer County's 14 high schools found, statistically speaking, our athletes are either not using drugs and alcohol comparable to the national averages or they're not getting caught.

And that's what intrigued some -- and concerned others -- when it came to the recent announcement that Sharon School District was close to implementing mandatory random drug testing for its athletes and cheerleaders.

Sharon, should the policy be adopted this month, would be the first public high school in the county to implement mandatory random drug testing. It would take affect in August.

"We're going to be the front-runner in the Shenango Valley and Mercer County," said Sharon Superintendent Richard Rossi. "And we hope it would become a contagious kind of a policy."

George Junior Republic has its own testing equipment and, according to school vice-president Rick Losasso, "every child is virtually tested for alcohol and drugs" when they return to the Grove City-based campus from a home visit. But the fact that GJR is, in effect, a private school, one that hosts court-adjudicated youngsters, makes it unique.

Also unique is Kennedy Christian, which as a private school has a little more latitude to deal with violators than the average public school.

"We do (drug testing) now with cause, with reasonable suspicion, not to catch them so much but to help them," said Kennedy Christian President Pete Iacino. "As far as random drug testing that's a difficult, difficult issue. At this point there is no such thing as random drug testing at our school. In some cases, however, we make it a condition upon the student staying here. And if there's been an ongoing problem or violations, we may have a series of tests mandated as a condition of staying in the building."

One such incident occurred within the last couple of years with the boys basketball team, according to Iacino.

"(Coach) Joe Votino had heard rumors that it might be going on with his team," Iacino said. "And he went out and got permission from all the parents and drug-tested the kids, but it was an unusual case."

At Sharon, Rossi said the district utilized a committee, which had been working since last July or August, to help formulate its policy.

"The approach was to go slowly and cautiously, and to develop a policy that would be proactive for our students," Rossi said. "The committee wanted to take its time. We've had meetings with hospital representatives and various testing companies. It's been pretty well thought out."

In Sharon's case, mandatory random drug testing will be a district-wide policy.

"If a student tests positive, then that student is under school district policy," Rossi said. "The coach will will not have the option to use the player."

As for sanctions? If an athlete tests positive the first time, they would be suspended indefinitely from the team, which, Rossi said means "until they participate in drug testing, counseling and they then test negative. At that time we want them back in the activity, on the playing field or whatever."

If the athlete is caught a second time, they would go through all the same steps as in the first offense, but would also be prohibited from participating in sports the rest of the school term. For example, if an athlete tests positive twice during a fall sports season, he or she would not be eligible to compete in any winter or spring sports that school year. That, school officials hope, might make some athletes think twice before using.

Rossi, however, isn't so naive as not to think that some are going to interpret the implementation of mandatory random drug testing as a sign that there are drug problems in his school and community.

"Society has a drug problem and we are part of that environment," Rossi said. "It's unfortunate if people want to assume that's our motive. I'm sorry, but that's not our intent.

"We're like every other high school in the United States that has drug and alcohol problems and we're not immune. And by having a proactive policy, we believe we are acknowledging society's problems."

Apparently, other county schools aren't ready to do the same, at least not in the forseeable future.

Of the other 11 high schools in the county, only Sharpsville and Farrell admitted to having some type of formal discussion on random drug testing while Commodore Perry said it has had some informal discussions. None are close to implementing it, however.

"Our discussion has been directed at athletes having random drug testing, but we're looking at the legal ramifications of doing that," said Sharpsville Superintendent Dr. Derry Stufft. "Personally, I don't think athletes should be singled out. If you're going to random drug test, it should be all students.

"And it just can't be punishment. There has to be a program for rehabilitation to help the student get straightened out. I think that's critical."

Farrell Superintendent Richard D. Rubano said his district has been looking at the issue, but "there are concerns about violations of individual rights."

Despite that, Rubano said there will be further discussions in the future with the board, steering committee, faculty and administration.

"Our board could always direct me to do that, but personally I'd be opposed to it, said Mercer Superintendent Larry Connelly. "That's a terrible intrusion into the students' lives. if you're going to do it, you should have some very traumatic reasons. I wouldn't agree to it unless there were clear and obvious reasons to pursue it."

As for the other districts? Greenville High School Principal Steve Ross, for the most part, best reflected the general mood of those administrators.

"If we felt that we had a problem in that area, we would consider it," said Ross. "Right now we don't feel that the problem is pervasive enough to warrant a drug testing policy, but if it got to the point where we felt that it was, we would consider it."

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Updated March 9, 1999
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