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San Diego District Would Pay Cost : Voluntary Drug Tests Proposed for 6 Schools

June 21, 1986|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

San Diego city school administrators, hoping to help students fend off the peer pressure they believe leads to casual drug use, are proposing a voluntary drug testing program for athletes, student leaders and other students at six city high schools.

If the Board of Education approves the project next month, the San Diego Unified School District would become the third--and by far the largest--county school system to adopt the unconventional tactic in the battle against teen-age drug use. Coronado Unified School District, which is set to start its program at Coronado High School in September, and Fallbrook Union High School District have already approved voluntary testing programs.

"The program is based on the concept that most kids don't want to use drugs, but they're forced into it," said Edward Fletcher, health services director for the school system. "When they go to a party, or a place where drugs are used, they have no way to say 'no' gracefully."

The drug testing program would provide the needed excuse. Students who sign up would be included in weekly lotteries during which three to seven names would be drawn at each school. A hospital or clinic would test those students' urine specimens for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other street drugs.

Only the teens and their parents would be made aware of the results. They would receive letters from the clinic if they turned up clean. If evidence of drug use is found, a physician would contact parents and students to urge them to discuss the matter and offer referrals to drug agencies, Fletcher said.

The schools would be completely uninvolved, except for organizing the lotteries. A committee of unidentified community members would select the students' names each week.

Students who wanted to turn down a drug offer could cite the possibility of being tested as a reason, officials said. And if student leaders and athletes make the program popular, peer pressure to avoid drugs could develop.

At Edison High School in Huntington Beach, where the program has been a tremendous success since its initiation among athletes last fall, football players have taped negative results on bulletin boards and taken to sporting T-shirts with the words "Mean, Green and Clean."

"I think this is an excellent idea, and I was a doubting Thomas to begin with," said Hugh Watson, principal of Coronado High School. "I'm convinced it's going to work."

Some Fallbrook High School students have expressed mixed feelings about the plan to start a voluntary drug testing program there. Skeptics argue that the procedure is an invasion of privacy, and others objected to the $25 testing fee. The school will pay the cost of the test if parents cannot.

Greg Marshall, legal director for the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization has some concerns about the spread of voluntary drug tests. Marshall wants the school district to ensure that the program "would be truly voluntary, rather than something that is accompanied by a lot of pressures to do it."

School board member Larry Lester said he too wants to guarantee that the program is not in any way coercive, or that students might construe it to be mandatory.

Under current plans, the San Diego school district would pay the cost of the tests, a price tag that could be as high as $36,000 a year, Fletcher said. Principals at six city high schools--Clairemont, Kearny, Mira Mesa, Patrick Henry, San Diego and University City--have expressed interest in the program, which would not be started until early 1987, Fletcher said.

Surveys have convinced California schools that they need a larger arsenal in their war on drugs. A poll taken in 1985 by the County Office of Education showed that 15% of county students in grades 7, 10 and 12 use alcohol at least once a week. Ten percent use marijuana at least once a week, and 5% use cocaine at least once a month, figures show.

In April, Attorney General John Van de Kamp released a survey showing that more than half of all high school juniors had tried illegal drugs and more than 65% have been drunk.

The school district has tried a variety of responses. In addition to drug education programs, undercover police have arrested hundreds of city school students for drug offenses during the past 2 1/2 years, a tactic that has become as controversial as it is effective. In February, schoolchildren joined other city residents in a large rally against drugs.

Voluntary drug testing is viewed as one more tactic, not a panacea. "This program is not going to catch the hard-core user, the kid who has been using for some time and is really hooked into using drugs," Watson said. That kind of student would not sign up for the tests, he said.

The target is "the kid who uses casually, uses socially and goes ahead and signs up for the program and then forgets about it," he said.

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