The Mortarboard, the Sheepskin, and the Dixie Cup

As expected, the Earls decision precipitated rapid growth in the examination of student fluids. Testing programs were announced across the nation last year. At least three counties in West Virginia now require testing of all students who participate in extra-curricular activities. By the beginning of 2004, three Houston, Texas school districts had implemented testing regimens of similar scope, with one district limiting the requirement to athletes and cheerleaders. Paradise Valley schools in suburban Phoenix also require testing of athletes and cheerleaders, as do schools in Angel Camp, near Sacramento. Officials at St. Patrick High School, a private school in Chicago, dropped a bomb last December, announcing that they would require hair testing of all 990 students.

Even before Justice Thomas expressed his singular definition of reasonableness, drug testing had a friend in George W. Bush. Announcing his nomination of John Walters to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2001, President Bush said, “We recognize that the most important work to reduce drug use is done in America’s living rooms and classrooms, in churches and synagogues and mosques, in the workplace and in our neighborhoods.” Oddly, he didn’t mention bathrooms. Press secretary Ari Fleischer announced that same day that 650 White House staffers had been tested as a condition of employment.

Not surprisingly, testing has also turned out to be a favorite activity with John Walters. Since his appointment, he has crisscrossed the country to hold “summits” and other gatherings to call attention to such things as New England’s alleged heroin epidemic. At these gatherings, Walters has rarely lost an opportunity to promote random drug testing in the nation’s schools. At the New England summit last October, he referred to testing as “a silver bullet.” In December, he renewed his calls for urinalysis during a speech in California, and there’s no reason not to expect more of the same during his upcoming “Twenty-Five Cities” tour.

Will the cup pass to Minnesota? Kids around here have found out about drugs, too. Statistically and anecdotally there are big problems with our school children and drug use. The federal Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools project is a fantasy by definition, if you ask most high school principals. “Any principal who says, ‘No, there’s no drug use in my school’ is not dealing with reality,” said Steve Hill. He is the principal at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, where there have been a number of canine sweeps. “There have been drug issues in society, and schools are microcosms of society,” he pointed out, adding that “teenagers experiment.”

The 2001 Minnesota Student Survey found that a whopping thirty-eight percent of males in the twelfth grade report recent binge drinking. Marijuana use has increased among twelfth graders from 20.4 percent in 1992 to 30.3 percent in 2001. Ninth-graders went from 9.6 percent to 19.8 percent in the same period, though the final number is a decline from the 24.1 percent peak in 1998 (interestingly, violent behavior in the surveyed student groups decreased over roughly the same time that marijuana use increased). So if we are serious about “zero tolerance,” we’ve got big problems: More than 500,000 of Minnesota’s public school students are implicated, with as much as sixty-seven percent reporting some alcohol, tobacco, or drug use in 2001. But during the last school year, only 5,856 students received suspensions for alcohol, tobacco, or other drug use, with just seventy expulsions. Out of roughly 840,000 students, about 0.71 percent are actually in enough trouble with drugs to merit disciplinary action.

Whether those stats are alarming or not, the drug-prevention methods in favor with school principals and prevention specialists aren’t usually headline-grabbing material. One of the state’s oldest programs doesn’t even have a name. It’s been cobbled together over the years, starting in about 1977 in the Rosemount school district. “They took prevention on before most districts hired drug counselors,” said Don Brundage. As Rosemount’s prevention coordinator since 1984, Brundage has seen just about every trend in the field. “We try to stay away from more intrusive tactics,” he said of his homegrown program. Simple things like placing a social worker in each elementary school have yielded tangible long-term results for at-risk groups. For education of the general student population, Brundage relies mostly on the students themselves. About 150 seniors from the district perform “peer teaching” sessions with a curriculum Brundage developed. He doesn’t kid himself that Rosemount schools are “drug-free zones” as the customary signage claims. But he says the Minnesota Student Survey shows on a regular basis below-average use rates in his district.

A variety of other drug-abuse prevention models are scattered throughout school districts in the state. Duluth Mentors takes a role-model approach, and is just now gathering data on outcomes. There are now several “Sobriety High Schools” in the state, designed to keep recalcitrant youth more firmly on track. At the University of Minnesota, researcher Gerald August has designed one of the more highly praised but least deployed intervention programs in the state. Early Risers targets very young kids (ages six to ten) with “multiple risk factors” for future drug abuse and other problems, the primary indication being “early aggressive, disruptive, and/or nonconformist behaviors.”

Early Risers describes itself as “high-intensity,” and this is probably an understatement. The program requires one “family advocate” for every twenty-five to thirty participants. Family advocates spend three to six months in a startup period identifying and enrolling children. After this, the advocate visits the child’s school at least once a week for a period of three years to work with the child and teachers. In addition, the advocate visits the child’s family at least thirty-six times over the same three-year period to counsel the family, to “broker community services,” and to basically tell parents how to raise their kids. Another six weeks of programming each summer is also recommended. With such intensity, it’s hard to imagine Early Risers not working. In fact, it is listed with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as a “model program.” But high-intensity is also high-cost. In the metropolitan area, only four hundred children have been through the program, and the only Minnesota school district currently subscribing is Willmar, where sixty students are enrolled at a total cost of $260,000 per year. Willmar’s program director Chris Oldakowski Schmid said dollar for dollar, she’d put Early Risers up against urinalysis any day.

The single most widespread program in the public schools is, of course, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE). According to Minnesota DARE executive director Kathi Ackerman, the program is taught in 730 schools in 243 school districts, reaching about 150,000 students. In the last decade, though, DARE’s critics may have come close to outnumbering its graduates. A particularly angry group called Parents Against DARE has formed in Colorado and now spreads a heated anti-DARE message via the web. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the Drug Reform Coordination Network will supply anyone with a modem dozens of studies demonstrating DARE’s lack of effectiveness.

While it’s worth pointing out that the last thing the folks at NORML want is an effective DARE, the program has mainstream critics, too. In 1999, the state’s largest school district dropped out of DARE. According to a report in the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis Police Department had been spending $500,000 a year on the program, achieving no measurable success. Saying that DARE “doesn’t make a hill of difference” in Minneapolis, Chief Robert Olson was glad to channel resources elsewhere. Minneapolis Public Schools spokesperson Melissa Winter confirmed that DARE is defunct in the district, replaced by health and social studies curricula developed in-house. On the other hand, a 2003 study conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota described mostly positive outcomes for the new “DARE Plus Project” in eight different schools when compared to a control group without the program. What remains certain, regardless of opinion, is that DARE’s footprint in the state will remain large enough to sustain some level of controversy.

It’s tempting to react to the raid in Goose Creek and the court battle in Oklahoma with the smug Minnesotan assumption that at least that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here. But despite the staggering array of low-key interventions available, Minnesota is already getting softened for tougher policies. Widespread drug testing may not be too far off. According to Mariann Wilson of Minnesota Monitoring, the company that is often on the receiving end of Minnesota’s urine sampling, roughly fifteen school districts make use of their testing services, though she has yet to hear of a “suspicionless” program.

Canine sweeps enjoy even greater popularity. In May 2002, a raid of parking lots at Jefferson and Kennedy high schools in Bloomington bagged twelve students for possession. Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Executive Director Robert Schmidt was unable to estimate how many more of the state’s 341 districts use drug-sniffing dogs, but there seems to be little organized resistance to the trend. Bloomington, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, and Stillwater are only a few of the districts that bring the dogs in to look for contraband on a regular basis. Acknowledging the intrusive nature of the tactic, some schools perform the sweeps after hours. Some search parking lots, some search lockers. Not surprisingly, none of the sweeps include district offices. Another thing they have in common is that they are pretty much off-limits to the press, so in the absence of surveillance tapes like Stratford High’s, it’s hard to know if students are being mistreated (though one high school principal said that canine sweeps were actually proposed by a student group).

While it’s also hard to measure the influence of the searches on future drug abuse, Bloomington superintendent Gary Prest says that since the 2002 sweep, they have done a great job keeping drugs off school property. Other officials have cited the advantage to privacy afforded by the dogs; they can find the drugs without emptying a cheerleader’s purse onto the floor. But perhaps it is a measure of the discomfort that all of these interventions cause, that each is promoted as a better alternative to the dogs.

The state’s political temperature may say the most about what the future holds for urinalysis. Back when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Earls case, Charlie Kyte told the Star Tribune, “I just don’t think [drug testing] is part of Minnesota’s culture.” When I spoke to him more recently, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators was no longer as sanguine about the state’s gentility. We have since become a conceal-carry state and we’ve re-opened the death penalty debate. And Governor Tim Pawlenty’s pick to head the Department of Education, Cheri Pearson Yecke, had already gained a reputation for her ability to channel Washington. Commissioner Yecke even seemed nostalgic for the days when federal troops brought policy to the schools: “Those who knew that there was a moral obligation to overcome segregation … did not call it an unfunded mandate,” Yecke has said. Just in case you were wondering exactly what she’s wrapping in the mantle of civil rights, it’s the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

To Charlie Kyte, No Child Left Behind has provided a potent lesson in how a state commissioner could funnel Washington policy to places it isn’t particularly welcome. Take, for example, No Child Left Behind’s definition of school safety. Annual expulsion numbers play a key role in defining school safety. If a student gets caught dealing, said Kyte, “you would probably want to expel that student. But you have to report it to the state.” This can lead to being declared a “Persistently Dangerous School.” Mary Olson, spokeswoman for the Anoka-Hennepin district, which expels more students than any other district in the state, agreed it was an odd way to measure safety, since expulsions get rid of problem kids for good. In other words, making your school safer by expelling troublemakers will get you branded “persistently dangerous,” somewhat after the fact. “Some parents would say it makes the school more safe,” she told me. So far, No Child Left Behind has not affected Anoka-Hennepin, so Olson says they have not bent their policies.

Bloomington’s Steve Hill was also unfazed: “My first responsibility to the community is to provide a safe learning environment. If we have four students dealing, we’ll expel four. If there are five, then it’s five. I couldn’t care less about No Child Left Behind reporting.” The problem with that attitude is, if a school’s expulsions exceed limits defined by No Child Left Behind, it means more than just losing stars in the governor’s quaint rating system. The school will not make what’s called “Adequate Yearly Progress.” Schools not making Adequate Yearly Progress can lose federal funding and can, under the law, be subject to “corrective actions,” including “removing certain schools from the jurisdiction of the district,” and even state takeover of the district itself.

Some certainly fear that heavier drug policies may come down from Washington by way of No Child Left Behind. The Safe and Drug-Free Schools program has, in fact, set up a grant program specifically for the development of drug-testing programs in public schools, and President Bush highlighted a twenty-three million dollar boost to the program in his State of the Union address. But Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said not to worry when I asked him about it. “This is not going to be a federally mandated program. We’re not gonna say to the schools, this is what you’re gonna do and this is how you’re gonna do it.” According to Lemaitre, it won’t have to be required; kids are asking for it. “Director Walters visits a lot of schools that have put these programs into place. What he has seen is that, surprisingly, the students want this.” While this stretches the credulity of most of the former teenagers I have met, it may be true. These measures are being sold to schools and students as a nicer alternative to the other kinds of intervention. “Schools that use testing maybe won’t have to use the dogs,” Lemaitre added.

Having failed Senate confirmation, commissioner Yecke will not have the opportunity to champion the Bush Administration’s testing agenda with the same devotion she granted No Child Left Behind. Her predecessor, Christine Jax, called the Earls decision on compulsory urine testing “outrageous.” Before Yecke was torpedoed, I had called her spokesman, Doug Gray, and asked if the commissioner had a position on the subject. Gray deflected the question: “Since we’re not involved in that program, it wouldn’t be appropriate to speak about it.”

But if the Bush Administration wants it, we should be prepared to see it here, said Brundage, the Rosemount district’s drug prevention coordinator. “This seems to be the way the wind is blowing at the federal level.”

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