School district continues random drug testing discussion

Encourage accountability or overstep of authority?

By Kendra Walker

The Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) is looking into the possibility of creating a policy for a random drug testing program for athletics and competitive clubs. During their May 20 meeting, the GWSD school board reviewed a draft policy, heard from student voices on the matter and weighed the pros and cons to enacting such a policy. The board did not take any action and will continue to consider all angles and impacts of the potential policy. 

“We continue to have a strong concern around substance use around our kids,” said GWSD superintendent Leslie Nichols, who introduced the idea of random drug testing to the board earlier this spring. “The longer we can support efforts to delay the onset of substance use for all kids, the less likely that using substances becomes problematic in their adult lives. Is this a way we could deter substance use?”

Nichols noted that this potential policy is still up for discussion and recognized that it is a sensitive topic. “I want to be clear that my mind is completely open. This is a conversation, this isn’t a hard push. This is the schools and the district saying we’re concerned.”

The draft policy reads, “In accordance with State law and Board Policy JICDA, JICH, and JIH, GWSD prohibits the possession, use, misuse, or distribution of drugs, controlled or mood-altering substances, tobacco, medication not registered with the office, or alcohol on school district property, school buses, or during activities under school district jurisdiction. This policy encompasses all students in grades 6-12 desiring to participate in interscholastic athletic activities and/or extracurricular activities. This policy includes those students being educated by the district under special circumstances, including homeschooling, homebound, or online education.”

It continues, “Participation in athletic teams and extracurricular activities is a privilege. Students who volunteer to participate in these programs are expected to accept the responsibilities granted to them by this privilege. By voluntarily participating in these activities, students have less expectation of privacy than do other students not engaged in athletics and extracurricular activities. Any student who is participating in school athletic teams or competitive extracurricular activities and the student’s custodial parent/guardian will consent in writing to drug testing pursuant to the district’s drug testing program using forms provided by the district. No student will be able to participate in any interscholastic sport or any extracurricular activity without such consent.”

Nichols invited several students from Crested Butte Community School to share their thoughts regarding the potential policy. Student Council president Grace Bogard said the Student Council gathered opinions from the student body, noting that the overall feeling about drug testing is that the cons outweigh the pros.

“The overall feeling was that it would be bad and could hurt sports, but there could be pros that come with it,” she said. 

For pros, student opinions said the policy would hold students accountable. “As an athlete, you probably shouldn’t be partaking in drug use,” said Bogard. “It creates a more trusting, more positive environment for the team. Athletes are leaders, and older students set an example for younger students. Doing drugs is illegal at this age.”

“These teams are going out weekly across the state and representing the values of the school,” added sophomore Colby Smith.

However, for cons, students noted that drug testing felt invasive, would not be an effective way to stop drug use and may decrease participation in sports. “We’re a small school and already struggle to create some teams, so it may create more issues,” said Bogard.

Smith noted that the valley already has the Choice Pass program, which gives students the opportunity to participate in a substance-free program that does random drug testing. “That in addition to forced drug testing does seem a little intrusive for many students,” he said. “The school is extending its authority over student lives outside school.

Gunnison High School principal Jim Woytek read a letter signed by 19 members of the G Club expressing their support for a district wide drug testing program. “Students expressed they would like a level of accountability. The general G Club consensus is we want a high-trust culture and high trust comes with accountability,” he said. “Hopefully having the mere possibility of being drug tested will help students not take substances, and if they’re at a party it gives a student an easy excuse to say no, I don’t want to engage in this.”

Board member Jody Coleman encouraged the students to return to their peers and gather more specific numbers, attitudes and stories that could help better inform the board. “Your voice is very, very important,” she told them. 

GCSAPP director of juvenile services Kari Commerford explained that the Choice Pass program has recently experienced an increase in violations. She said that over 8% of Choice Pass participants violated their substance-free pledge this year, compared to less than 3% in years past. 

Commerford said that testing is just one piece of the comprehensive program, but it allows for accountability, leadership and early identification when youth are making choices. “When a young person violates their Choice Pass, it is a teachable moment,” she said. Commerford shared that a violation provides an opportunity for conversation between the youth and parents and allows them to get connected to other trusted adults and tools to create a healthier culture. 

She also noted, “Sometimes it’s not the students who are opposed to drug testing, but the parents can be opposed. ​​I encourage you through the conversation and looking at data to think about who is opposed to this,” she told the board. “Is the program intended for supporting the youth? Is it for the athletes themselves or is there an adult component and narrative around what isn’t appropriate?”

CBSS principal Ernie Kothe has worked in other districts with drug testing policies, and shared that from his experience when an athlete tested positive, it helped kickstart positive conversations to find out what was going on with the student. 

“What effect did that have on the atmosphere of the school and among the athletics?” asked board president Tyler Martineau. 

“There was a good, positive pressure on the kids to be substance-free,” said Kothe. “There was a lot of pride in our schools with our athletics and being proud of them in the choices they had made to be substance-free. I didn’t observe negative impacts of drug testing on the school.”

“I very much understand the good intention behind this, but asking kids to take a random drug test does seem to me an overstep of authority to a student’s right to privacy,” said board member Anne Brookhart. “I worry that some students might choose not to participate because of that loss of privacy and distrust. I worry drug testing might discourage talented kids from participating in positive activities that might otherwise carry them through bad choices or experiences.”

“I want to know what parents think about this as well,” said board member Mandy Roberts. “I believe there should be an opt out for parents.”

“This is a very challenging discussion,” said Nichols. “We’ll continue to reflect, it’s a lot to think about moving forward.”

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