The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Hillsborough resident and former Board of Education Vice President Marc Rosenberg and addresses the issue of random drug testing at Hillsborough Township Public Schools.
I applaud the Hillsborough BOE’s action to solicit more community input before making a decision on Random Drug Testing (RDT). As a former vice president of the school board, I understand how hard and potentially divisive this decision is. I was conflicted when I voted for RDT; I still am.
As we consider RDT, it may be helpful to review some of the major issues. I speak only for myself and have no access to BOE deliberations other than what is public. Nevertheless, it’s important for the community and the BOE to consider these questions:
Is it legal?
Yes. The courts have consistently ruled that RDT is legal so long as the consequences (and punishment) do not deny the student access to a “free and thorough” education. The Hillsborough program focuses primarily on counseling; denial of education is never on the table. Some have argued that RDT is different from other searches (e.g., searching a student’s locker or a students themselves for a weapon) because RDT actually compels the student to give up bodily fluids. While the distinctions are important, state law continues to uphold RDT.
Is it fair?
This is a far different question. State courts have ruled that students testing positive can lose privileges but not access to education. Privileges include athletics, extra-curricular activities, parking, etc. In Hillsborough, students testing positive are removed from these activities until their counseling or other treatment is concluded. This poses a dilemma for the school in that those students who do not participate in any of these privilege activities are not tested (25 percent of the student body in 2008-9; 6 percent of the student body in years 2009-10, 2010-11and 2001-12). One could argue that students who use drugs will shy away from such activities to avoid detection (I do not know if this is happening or not), while those who do participate are singled out unfairly. It has also been pointed out that faculty, administrators and most staff are not subject to RDT, even when they are hired. Such requirements would have to be negotiated into union contracts. Is this fair? Does fairness trump other issues? You decide.
Isn’t this the parents’ responsibility?
Of course it is, but the BOE has an undeniable and absolute legal responsibility to provide a healthy and safe environment while children are in school. The legal doctrine of in loco parentis has long held that schools have some parental authority while children are in school. Read more about in loco parentis here: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/In+loco+parentis. State and federal law, and good common sense, also direct the schools in these matters. To me, it is a partnership between the family and the school, but if parents can’t or won’t do their part, the school still has its responsibility to protect all children, even drug abusers. The BOE cannot–legally or morally–abdicate its role here.
Is it working?
The most important question. According to information revealed at a recent BOE meeting, between 2008 and 2011, between 189 and 200 students were tested each year, with positive results ranging from about 2.5 percent to 4 percent each year.What was surprising were the results from this past year, where only fifty students were tested, but more than 10 percent of the results were positive. Is this a result of a failed policy, more accurate screening, a sudden increase in drug use, a statistical aberration, or other factor? I do not know, but it is worth investigating.
The bigger issue here is not how many students were caught, but how those interventions turned out. Because of privacy rules, the BOE may be privy to this confidential information and hopefully, they will use it to guide their decision. There is a balance that must be struck between invasiveness and whether or not such interventions do good–prevent crime, promote quality education, and save lives. The obviously question is, if RDT helps just one child, or saves just one life, is it worth it? Also to be considered is the role of RDT as a deterrent. Would drug use rise if RDT did not exist? Do students stay away from drugs out of fear of being caught? Is this a worthy outcome? The community would benefit from knowing more here.
And, if RDT is to end, what plans does the BOE have to deter drug use going forward?
Waiting to see what happens, or declaring that this is not the schools’ responsibility, is not helpful.
No one denies that the health and well-being of our students is paramount. No one denies the debilitating impact of drugs in school. What is debatable are the approaches that should be taken to meet this challenge. Many school, medical and law enforcement professionals support RDT. Many civil libertarians oppose it. Parents appear to be split, and some see the results as indeterminate. What about you? Let the Board of Education know where you stand.
– Marc J. Rosenberg