The Aug. 26 meeting of the Northern Valley Regional High School District’s Board of Education stuck to the recurring themes of crowdedness, contention, and lengthiness.
In the fourth consecutive board meeting that saw the clock strike midnight, parents arrived at the Demarest campus to voice their complaints about the board’s ongoing drafting of a policy on random drug testing (RDT) in the high schools.
The board brought in Chris Steffner, the current Superintendent of the Hunterdon Central High School District (which uses RDT), to speak on the topic. Steffner implemented an RDT program while principal at Hackettstown High School, the model of which recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the White House.
Steffner has a slew of other accomplishments on her resume, including official recognition from President George W. Bush in 2008 and John Walters, the Drug Czar, in 2006. She has been a major voice for RDT, traveling the world and appearing on national television networks.
Before the meeting and Steffner’s presentation, a few parents opposed to RDT stood at the building’s entrance, handing out informational packets.
One point raised in the packet, Hunterdon Central still has a drug problem. This seems to call into question the effectiveness RDT. According to the handout, the director of the Hunterdon Drug Awareness Program, Glenn Duncan, “found much to be concerned with” regarding drug use in the school last year.
The handout continued to cite lack of scientific evidence of effectiveness of RDT, pointing to a study by a research group from the University of Michigan who found that RDT could lead students to abuse less detectable, more dangerous substances.
Attached to the end of the handout were an article from The Record, calling for the board to terminate their pursuit of RDT, and a letter from a former student at Hackettstown High School who said that “The atmosphere that RDT creates is one of uneasiness and makes a student feel that they can never be trusted.”
“I always try to start this presentation,” Steffner began, “by saying I’m not here to tell you that you should be drug testing your kids. That’s a decision you need to make with your stakeholders, with your community. I’m here simply to answer your questions … and make you feel better about being able to make a decision.”
A strong theme in Steffner’s presentation was a suggestion that RDT is favorable when compared to reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is a legal statute by which faculty must report a student that they believe is under the influence of drugs. Under reasonable suspicion, students are suspended if they test positive.
With an RDT policy, however, a student cannot be suspended following a positive test. Furthermore, information about the positive test cannot be released to police nor added on the student’s discipline records. Steffner called the under suspicion law “reactive” and RDT “proactive.”
“If you speak to most schools that [use RDT], they think we have a much more healthy culture,” she added.
Steffner also addressed one of the more popular concerns among parents who believe that RDT, which only enters students who partipate in extracurricular activities into the testing pool, would discourage students from joining extracurriculars. Steffner said that there is no data that would suggest this.
Steffner asserted that students at Hunterdon Central more or less do not seem to mind RDT.
“It’s a part of our culture. Our kids get why we do it,” she remarked. “It’s not to catch them. If you wanted to catch them, you would use under suspicion.”
Another keystone of Steffner’s talk was that the goal of RDT is to act as a deterrent, not a system to catch and punish students.
Steffner concluded by saying that catching drug habits early is the best way to eliminate them. She ended with the tagline, “It is wiser to build children than repair adults.”
Board President John Schettino raised a question on privacy to Steffner, asking point blank if RDT is an invasion of privacy. This has been one of the most popular concerns among parents.
“I know that people feel that way,” Steffner answered. “We do not release that information [about positive tests] … the goal is to deter drug use … and get parents involved at an early stage.
“We have to be less worried that somebody in the neighborhood might find out that your child might be using drugs or alcohol. Finding out that your child is using drugs and alcohol is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing is not finding out until it’s too late.”
After Steffner’s presentation, the meeting was opened to the public for comments and questions. Parents lined up by the dozen to voice their opposition, many of the regulars at these meetings among them. Of the more than 20 residents who spoke, not one supported RDT.
Henry Hoberman of Demarest noted that the students and parents of Hunterdon Central favored RDT, but that might not be the case in the Northern Valley. He asked Steffner if RDT would still be a good idea even if most stakeholders opposed it.
“I personally think that schools need to reflect their community,” Steffner responded, earning the applause of the audience. “That being said,” she continued, I don’t know how many people are in this audience, but I know that there are a lot more in the district.
“Often people come and they think because they’re the loudest … they represent the majority.”
Hoberman also stated that he does not believe that RDT “changes the hearts and minds,” of students and that RDT is “not educating.”
“All you’re doing,” he said, “is creating a police state where your children have learned not to use drugs when they’re being tested.”
Irwin Latner of Closter asserted the privacy issue.
“It is an invasion of privacy,” he said. “The question is not whether it’s an invasion of privacy, the question is whether it’s Constitutional.”
Latner also mentioned growing community opposition to RDT in the Northern Valley.
“There’s not widespread support [for RDT] here, and it’s not just the parents showing up here,” he said. “There are three town councils [Closter, Demarest, and Haworth] that passed resolutions against this process–and I say process; forget about the policy … This process is opposed by the community.
“We want our school system and our drug policy to reflect our values, which are more education-based than testing-based,” he concluded.
Amy Heller of Harrington Park also spoke, refuting Steffner’s claim that there is no data that says students become less involved in extracurriculars because of RDT. Heller told of a school district in Kansas that had implemented RDT and subsequently abandoned it “because they found it was ineffective, and they found that suspicion-based testing was more effective.
“What [the superintendent of that district] found was that RDT created a climate of fear that thwarts any possibility of a nurturing and safe environment,” Heller stated, adding that those students who were tested felt “demoralized,” “humiliated,” and “coerced.”
Two students also spoke out against RDT. Rachel Abolafia, a Harrington Park resident and an incoming senior at Old Tappan, stated that she felt “guilty trying to be proven innocent.” Adam Doros, also of Harrington Park, was concerned that students were unaware of RDT.
“I feel like it’s not right for the board to draft a policy that’s going to affect the students this much when the students don’t even know it’s happening, let alone have a say in it,” Doros said. “We need to have our voices heard when it comes to our own bodies … we’re the ones being affected.”
After public comment, board member John Passalacqua asked if the board and public could hear a presentation of someone who would make a case against RDT, reflecting another point in the parents’ handout that the board was presenting unbalanced information by only having a speaker discuss the benefits of RDT.
“It’s something that the public has asked for,” Passalacqua said.
Nagy answered by stating that “we’re currently working” on doing just that. Nagy said that he already had an individual in mind to present the negatives of RDT.
The board is currently working with student assistant coordinators, law enforcement, administration, teachers, counselors, parents, and students to draft a policy on RDT. They expect to review the drafted policy during the Sept. 23 meeting at the Demarest campus.
In October, the board will vote on whether or not to implement the drafted policy. If any potential policy were to be approved by the Board of Education, it would be implemented for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year.
Photo courtesy Chris Steffner’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/ChrisSteffner