May 31, 2006 - As drug use in public high schools continues to increase across the country, Catalina Foothills High School is hoping to stop the abuse among its teens by drug testing students next year.
"We are in the process of writing a proposal that would go to the superintendent in which we identify a grant source to fund the cost associated with random/suspicionless drug testing," said Wagner Van Vlack, principal.
The high school found itself under the community's microscope in September when three female students were arrested on felony drug charges for bringing heroin to school.
The district held two community forums following the girls' arrests in October, where more than 500 residents attended. A drug task force was formed following the forums which included students, teachers and parents.
"(We) really studied all of the ideas that came from the drug forums," Van Vlack said. "We collected ideas (and) strategies that might work in the communities to prevent drug and alcohol misconduct."
The main recommendation from the task force involves testing students for drugs and alcohol.
The details are still being worked out, but the high school administration expects parents and students to sign off on random drug testing at anytime during the school year.
No punitive action will be taken against the student if drugs are found in the student's system and only the parents and one counselor will get the results.
"The purpose of that is not at all disciplinary, it is to allow the counselor to get the parent information about assistance, help and prevention," he said. "The administration would be entirely out of the loop."
The cost of the test is still being looked into, as is the funding source for it. Van Vlack is estimating a cost of about $35 per test and is looking into saliva testing instead of the more ubiquitous urinalysis.
"It makes it as easy as possible, without causing any embarrassment," he said.
The drug testing may be done on campus or a voucher could be given to parents to have the test done at a later time, Van Vlack said.
"We're going to try to make this as unobtrusive as possible," he said. "We're not going to take a kid out of algebra class."
The district's governing board must approve the drug testing before it can begin, something Van Vlack hopes will be done this summer, he said. If approved, the district would be the first in Pima County to implement drug testing for students.
Drug usage among high school students is a problem across the United States and the Foothills is no different, he said.
At CFSD, one percent of students over the past two years in grades 6 to 12 have been suspended, or avoided suspension by transferring to another school, for alcohol or drug misconduct, he said.
"That's a pretty remarkable statistic," he said. "That doesn't say that the administration believes that only one percent of our students have ever experimented with drugs or alcohol, but clearly most of the activity is off of school grounds."
The 2005 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse surveyed 1,000 teens ages 12 to 17. After 10 years of conducting the survey, the number of teens using drugs continues to increase.
More than 10.6 million high school students, 62 percent, will attend school this fall where drugs are kept, sold or used, according to the survey.
That is why preventing drug use needs to become a community wide effort, Van Vlack said.
"We're trying to change the culture of the community," he said. "We will make a difference."
Each year Pima County deals with drug abuse on its school campuses. To prevent such offenses schools hire security officers or police officers to aid in protection of students and enforcement of the countywide zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use among students.
No matter the school-wide effort, drugs are still a problem on almost any campus, said Sam McClung, Ironwood Ridge High School principal.
Police arrested at least one student May 19 at Ironwood Ridge High School for having drugs on campus.
McClung would not say what drugs the student was caught with or provide the name or age of the student. Public records requested by the EXPLORER were not available by the time of publication.
This was not an unusual arrest to have occurred at a high school, McClung said.
"Any high school is a microcosm of society," he said. "The problems that occur in any society certainly occur in our campus."
Ironwood Ridge has no plans to implement drug testing, he said, but the school will continue to follow up on anonymous tips made to the campus and leads regarding drug and alcohol abuse among students.
"If we don't follow up on reports and act like an ostrich with our head stuck in the sand, then we might be able to get through many, many months without busting someone," he said. "So you can look at schools that have maybe lower rates and wonder, 'is this really a representation of the community?'"
Throughout the county drug offenses continue to plague teens. In 2004, 2,050 teens ages 8 to 17 were arrested and arraigned through the Pima County Juvenile Court on drug offenses.
Mike Moynihan, a recent CFHS graduate and task force member, knows all to well the use of drugs among his peers.
"I know a lot of kids who go to Foothills do drugs," he said. "I think drug use is pretty prevalent."
The topic of drug testing at the high school has been kept under wraps to most students, Moynihan said. The administration is not keeping it a secret, it just hasn't been introduced yet, he said.
"They really haven't informed us to what is going to happen," he said. "So there really hasn't been much reaction. I'm sure there will be a much stronger reaction from students if and when they do implement this."
Proponents for drug testing could say it is not the place of schools to intervene in parents lives and enforce drug testing among students. Moynihan doesn't see it that way, he said.
"You're asking for trouble if you're doing that at school," he said. "I can't even see why you'd ever do that at school."
Parents are given the decision if they want to have their kids drug tested, Van Vlack said.
"The parents are in control," he said. "If people choose not to, that's O.K."
Foothills students have a variety of drugs of choice, Moynihan said. The most popular he believes to be marijuana.
"Most people at the school have experimented (with) marijuana," he said. "But, there are a pretty large group of people that have at least tried cocaine."
Sam Caruso has taught at CFHS for 11 years and has not seen drug use on campus among students, he said.
"Walking around campus, it's not visible," Caruso, the advanced placement history teacher said. "It's just not obvious until something happens."
Caruso thinks drug testing is an important way to prevent students from using drugs. If a student signs up for drug testing they may think twice before using, he said.
He is proud that the Foothills would be the first district in Pima County to consider implementing drug testing.
"It must say something about the parents, the community and the administration," he said.
Even with drug testing, nothing is full proof and students will continue to use drugs, Caruso speculates.
"There's only so much we can do. As much as we try to watch them, it's such a precarious balance, giving them freedom and then asking them to be mature," he said.
The high school has administered an anonymous tip line to report abuse, crime or other serious school misconduct.
For the first time in the school's history incoming freshman parents will be required by the district to have a meeting with administrators where the topic of drug abuse will be discussed. Those meetings will be in August.
The high school is taking a cue from the University of Arizona and implementing a social norms campaign. For years the UA has been advertising survey results on campus detailing the percentage of students who do not use drugs or alcohol. It is a way to open students eyes that not everyone is doing it, Van Vlack said.
The high school will begin a similar program in the fall.
Kris Bosworth, University of Arizona Smith Endowment Chair in Prevention and Education was on the high school's task force and applauds the initiative taken by the school to change the attitudes among teens about drug and alcohol abuse, she said.
"I think it's a very, very good move for the community and for the young people in the community," Bosworth said. "No single activity is the solution to the problem, there's no magic bullet."
Sue Lebby, a parent, has seen drug use hit the ones closest to her.
"It really breaks my heart," she said. "(Kids) that I knew from when they were young. Something has to change."
Lebby found it important to work with the task force and attempt to find a way to tackle drug use on campus.
"We're trying to hit it from so many angles," she said.
Using drugs is mainly a social and image-based decision, Moynihan said. So with the impending social norms program and more of a dialogue about drug use, an end may be in sight. Yet he, too, has seen good friends go down the path to drug abuse, he said.
"I've had friends who I've grown up with, who I've seen get into drugs," he said. "I can't believe this is happening to someone I know. If parents are involved in their kids lives and make an effort to know what their kids are up to than those kids won't most likely have that kind of problem.