Update on random drug testing in the Northern Valley District

OLD TAPPAN

It was announced at the Sept. 9 meeting of the Northern Valley Regional High School District’s Board of Education that the policy committee will soon begin drafting a policy on random drug testing (RDT), with the expectation that it would be finished and read during a meeting near the end of October.

This seemed too soon for board member Ron Schwartzman, who has been by far the board’s most staunch opponent of RDT, an idea that has stirred the community.

“I thought there had been some talk about having someone present the opposite point of view from what we had from the woman from Hunterdon,” Schwartzman said. “Where does that fit into this schedule?”

The “woman from Hunterdon” is Chris Steffner, Superintendent of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School District, who gave a presentation during the Aug. 26 board meeting about her experiences with implementing RDT in high schools.

After Steffner’s presentation, trustee John Passalacqua asked if there could be a speaker brought in who opposed RDT.

Passalacqua is known for being on the fence on this issue. On July 17, he voted to postpone making a decision on the drafting of an RDT policy. But when that motion was defeated and it was ruled that a decision be made that night, Passalacqua voted to proceed with drafting an RDT policy.

Schwartzman reiterated Passalacqua’s request at the Sept. 9 meeting. “How can you make a policy without hearing both sides?” he asked.

“To be fair, we should listen to somebody from the other side with their opinion before we even think about [drafting a policy],” added board member Leonard Albanese, who has been on record in support of RDT.

Marilyn Coats-Thomas, who chairs the policy committee, reported that she had brought up the idea to the committee during a prior policy meeting.

“I thought we should hold off on the policy until we got the opportunity to [hear from the opposing side],” she said.

“I think that would be wise,” stated trustee Maria Kim, “so that the process is as important as the result.”

“That’s right,” Albanese replied. “You hear from both sides and you make your decision. You’re going to vote on a policy, so this way you’re ready to vote.”

Board President John Schettino countered, telling fellow board members that he was “surprised that you’re saying you haven’t heard both sides, because a lot of people have been very articulate with their position on the issue,” acknowledging the consistent backlash from parents who oppose RDT and have continually shown up at meetings to voice their opinions.

This, however, was not good enough for several trustees and even some parents, who pointed out that, despite all of the vocal opposition, there have been no presentations from professionals.

Schettino answered by suggesting that there would be issues with time and availability. The policy committee, which consists of 31 members, plans to begin working on drafting the policy soon and there may not be  enough time to find and bring in an expert who opposes RDT.

Passalacqua wondered if the speaker against RDT even needed to speak before the policy is drafted.

“I certainly see the advantage in doing it before the policy committee’s work,” he said, “but there may be an advantage also after the policy work … based on a presentation after the policy committee has done their work, the board could [request a revision].”

Schwartzman disagreed, saying that “you want the policy committee to have everything before we even start.”

Coats-Thomas, who has been an opponent of RDT, said she would prefer hearing a speaker against RDT before drafting the policy.

Albanese and Kim both stated that they knew experts that could speak against RDT and would refer them to Nagy.

“I think the issues have been very clearly stated over the past several months,” Schettino remarked. “I personally don’t think that we’re going to learn too much. We may get a different perspective on it, but we know the issues.” He said shortly after that “I can’t conceive of anything else that an expert’s going to say that we haven’t already heard.”

Schwartzman said that this was “absolutely not true.” He, Passalacqua, and board member Kathy Fable had met with an expert on RDT who will present to the rest of the policy committee later on. Schwartzman said that he “learned so much – completely different stuff that we had never heard before.”

Schettino observed the “consensus” among the board to bring in a speaker against RDT. RDT’s opponents were excited to learn that the board and administration will proceed with inviting such a speaker – “Progress, we think!” is the newest headline of the online petition started by concerned parents.

During the public portion of the meeting, parents and students addressed the board.

Irwin Latner of Closter claimed that Nagy and Schettino have an “agenda” to push an RDT policy and that doing so showed “poor leadership.” He encouraged other board members to stick to “the courage of your convictions” and said that it “wasn’t too late” to change their minds.

Anne Marie Gearing of Old Tappan, a pharmacist, was a proponent of RDT – one of the few that have spoken publicly during these meetings. She pointed to the rise of heroin and other opiates in New Jersey as a significant concern.

Donna Weintraub, a member of Haworth’s board of education, said that she had been undecided until recently. She cited a study by the University of Michigan, which reports that RDT can lead to students moving to more dangerous and less detectable drugs like opiates, which stay in the system for a shorter amount of time, in order to avoid being caught by RDT.

“I implore you to take my children into consideration,” she said, “because you are going to be doing an experiment. It’s an experiment that no evidence-based study has proven useful. You’re experimenting on my children and it is now personal.”

Mikala Nuccio, a resident of Haworth and a senior at Demarest, also spoke. Reaching into a paper bag, she pulled out the names of four board members. She asked them to raise their hands and handed them small plastic testing cups, instructing them to go to the bathroom. This won thunderous applause from the public.

“For someone to come into my classroom and for that to happen – how did you feel?” Nuccio asked. “It’s very uncomfortable, and I just want you to understand that that’s the way it’s going to feel when someone does that to us.”

Anna Zwirn, a resident and student of Demarest, said she believed “it shouldn’t be the administrators’ responsibility” to instill values in children; it should be left to the parents. This, too, earned a hearty round of applause from the parents – one that lasted nearly half a minute.

Again, the policy committee will begin working on drafting the RDT policy in a few weeks. It is expected that the policy will be read for the first time in late October. If approved, the RDT policy is expected to take effect in January 2014.

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