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Catholic school to test all kids for drugs

Chicago Tribune

All 1,000 boys attending a Northwest Side Catholic high school will face mandatory drug screens next fall--a new requirement that lands them smack in the middle of a simmering national debate.

St. Patrick High School officials said Wednesday the school will be the first high school in the Chicago area to require drug testing of all students.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld drug testing in public schools, but only for athletes and others involved in extracurricular activities. Parochial schools are not bound by those rulings.

Students' parents will pay $60 for the test, which will use hair samples collected by school counselors to screen for all illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy, but not steroids or alcohol.

Reaction among students has been mixed. Senior Steven Rohlf said that while he had no problems with the program, many students were "very upset."

"The majority are against it," Rohlf said. "A lot of people have a privacy problem. I believe we benefit much more than it's bad."

Across the country, the usefulness of drug-testing programs is under debate. A study this year by University of Michigan researchers showed no significant difference in drug use between schools testing for drugs and those that don't.

"Our only objective is to help students deal with societal pressures," said Brother Konrad Diebold, president of St. Patrick, at 5900 W. Belmont Ave. "We do know that kids are under pressure, and this gives them a chance to say `no,' and say no with integrity."

The St. Patrick program is modeled after drug testing in place for several years at Catholic high schools in Memphis and New Orleans, where opposition has been light and success is clear, according to program administrators. Two Catholic schools in Peoria and Rock Island also have mandatory testing programs.

At St. Patrick, students will be tested randomly throughout the year. School counselors will clip each student's hair, place the sample in a sealed envelope signed by the student, and then send the package to a lab for analysis.

Hair sample tests, considered by experts to be more reliable than either blood or urine testing, detect any drugs used within the last 90 days. Students testing positive will meet with parents and school officials but will not otherwise be disciplined.

"Then it's up to the parents to work something out with the kid," said Principal Joseph Schmidt.

The student is retested 100 days later. A second positive test may result in suspension or expulsion, Diebold said.

The timing of the St. Patrick announcement was driven, in part, by the admissions cycle for next fall.

"When we recruit students for the following year, they know what they're getting into," Diebold said.

A number of parents contacted by the Tribune enthusiastically endorsed the testing.

"As a parent, it's a great thing," said Rose Mayerbock, mother of a St. Patrick junior. "There are parents that don't necessarily realize that their child could be on something. For me, one of my biggest fears is if they are on drugs and alcohol. I am very lucky because I trust that my kids are not."

Student rights advocates said they were troubled by St. Patrick's new program but acknowledged there was little recourse.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld random drug testing of any student involved in extracurricular activities but stopped short of allowing blanket screenings. That ruling applied only to public schools.

"We're concerned any time groups of people are considered suspects based on their age and location," said Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But it's a private school. There's nothing we can do about it."

The 438,000 students in the Chicago Public Schools are not subject to any type of drug testing.

The Chicago archdiocese applauded the St. Patrick program but has no plans to mandate it in other Catholic schools.

"We think this is one example of steps schools can take to make a healthy and safe environment," said Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, director of communications for the Office of Catholic Schools. "Other Catholic high schools may follow the progress of this program."

The Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based non-profit group opposed to the drug war and student testing, points to recent University of Michigan research suggesting screening does little to deter student drug use.

"It teaches harmful lessons about rights of privacy and the concept that you are guilty until proven innocent," said Judy Appel, the group's deputy director of legal affairs.

Scientists at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research tracked drug-testing policies and results in more than 700 public and private schools nationwide from 1998 to 2001. Fewer than one-quarter of those schools tested students for drug use.

In a report published in April in the Journal of School Health, the researchers noted that the percentage of students using marijuana differed little between schools with testing programs and those without.

For example, 37 percent of seniors in schools with testing programs reported using marijuana in the past year, compared with 36 percent of seniors in schools without testing.

Twenty percent of student athletes at schools with drug-testing programs reported using drugs other than marijuana, compared with 18 percent of student athletes at schools without testing, according to the University of Michigan study.

The success of drug-testing programs isn't measured in numbers alone, argued Brother Chris Englert, principal at Memphis' Christian Brothers High School with whom St. Patrick officials consulted before drafting the testing program.

In the first three years of the program, 50 out of 3,300 random drug tests at the Memphis school came back positive. Thirteen students were expelled after positive follow-up tests, Englert said.

Public perception of the 850-student school has improved. Anecdotally, the school is seeing fewer drug-related petty crimes. And several other Memphis-area private schools have replicated the program, Englert said.

"We're sending a message to these kids every day," he said. "Would you pay $60 to know if your son was using drugs? It's a no-brainer."
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