Jan. 13, 2011 -- A small New Jersey school district has taken a new approach to battling drug use in middle schools. Soon students as young as 11 at Belvidere's Oxford Street School will be marching down the halls to the nurse's office to pee in cups for random drug testing.
"I'm hoping that it will be a deterrent," the school's principal, Sandra Szabocsik, said of the new policy.
The program, which was approved at a poorly attended school board meeting last night, will be voluntary and require both student and parental consent. Parental support for drug testing has been high despite the fact that no drug or alcohol problems have ever been reported in the 100-student school, and Szabocsik expects about 70 percent of students will participate. Students who test positive will not be turned over to police; instead, the school will address the issue and help arrange counseling as needed.
Seventh grader Nikko DeBenedetto, 13, plans to sign up for the program, and thinks it's a good idea.
"Kids our age shouldn't be doing drugs," he said. But DeBenedetto doesn't think a voluntary program makes much sense. "If they're guilty, they're probably not going to sign up."
Belvidere School District's high school students already participate in drug testing, but the program for this older age group is not voluntary. Any student who participates in extracurricular activities - ranging from school sports to parking passes – must comply.
School board member Jane Bullis – who voted against the proposal in the 9-2 vote last night – has a daughter at the high school who's been drug tested. She believes the school district doesn't have the budget, or the right, to take such drastic measures.
"We're stepping into the realm of trying to be the police," she said, adding that she thinks many middle schoolers will find the whole process of urine testing at school uncomfortable. "How embarrassing for such young children. If there truly is a problem for our sixth graders I don't know that this is the answer."
Jay Rorty, director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, said the big issue here is that studies show drug-testing students is ineffective and does not deter children from using drugs. Plus, Rorty says, it sends a message to students that it's OK for the government and schools to intrude on personal privacy
"Making a child pee in a cup is not a good civics lesson," he said. "It's an attempt at an easy fix to a complicated issue."
Drug testing school-aged students has grown in popularity gradually during the last 10-15 years, according to Columbia Teachers College law and education professor Jay Heubert.
Heubert said that while there are no legal concerns with the premise of the Belvidere program, creating an effective testing process could present challenges for the district. One common issue with drug testing is effective labeling to avoid swapped samples.
"Inexpensive tests often err," he said. "It's not cheap to do this well."
The Belvidere School District will be looking for parent volunteers to help run the program and expects that it will cost about $1,000 or less per year, according to Superintendent Dirk Swaneveld.
Plans for the drug policy began about a year ago when local police reported middle school students found drinking at parties, Szabocsik said. But students interviewed at the middle school said that drugs aren't a big problem there.
"I don't personally think it's necessary," said 8th grader Kenny Kane, 14, of the urine tests. "It's kind of an invasion of privacy."
Kane said that while he supports the policy, there will plenty of kids that don't want to be bothered by it. As to whether Kane himself will sign up for the program: "If my mom makes me," he said with a chuckle.