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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Education

Drug tests weighed in Lake Stevens

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Student athletes and others participating in after-school activities could be subject to random drug testing under a plan being considered by the Lake Stevens School Board tonight.

For the past year, Lake Stevens officials have discussed a range of strategies to address high-school students' drug use.

The board is expected to direct Superintendent Dave Burgess to develop a plan that includes student drug testing beginning in the fall.

"The focus isn't to be punitive, to kick kids out of school, but to get them the help they need to be drug- and alcohol-free," district spokeswoman Arlene Hulten said.

The Marysville School Board also has discussed implementing student drug testing as a way to reduce drug use and increase student awareness about its dangers.

But the state American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues that such testing is illegal and has sued schools in Wahkiakum and Kittitas counties. Other critics say testing doesn't reduce drug use and likely drives away students who could most benefit from participation in school activities.

Though some students at Lake Stevens High School say they support the proposal, administrators in other districts wonder if it would address the most serious issues.

"Our biggest problem is alcohol abuse. Drug testing doesn't address that," said Greg Erickson, the athletic director for Marysville schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that schools could test students for drug use, as long as the testing was voluntary. The court determined that testing athletes and students involved in extracurricular activities was acceptable because students could choose not to participate if they didn't want to be tested.

Students at alternative schools in Arlington and Lake Stevens are now tested for drug use as a condition of enrollment, under the same argument that attendance at these schools is optional.

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But the state constitution has stricter standards for privacy and searches than does the federal Constitution, said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU of Washington.

"Our issue is testing students where there's no suspicion of wrongdoing," he said.

He urged Lake Stevens and other districts to wait for the courts to rule.

The state's 2004 Healthy Youth Survey reported that 43 percent of 12th-graders in Snohomish County had consumed alcohol within the previous month. About 25 percent said they'd recently used an illegal drug.

Those numbers, coupled with drug-related disciplinary issues, persuaded Lake Stevens officials last year to study ways to address the problem.

The district this year strengthened enforcement of school codes that prohibit use of illegal substances. It brought in drug-sniffing police dogs. It also launched a student-assistance program that includes counselors and drug-intervention specialists to whom students can go for help.

Student drug testing is one more piece of the plan.

"Our community has said, 'Everything you can do, you should be doing,' " Hulten said.

Tonight's School Board meeting is to start at 7:30 at district offices, 12309 123rd Ave. N.E.

Last week at Lake Stevens High School, several students agreed that drug testing was a reasonable measure to reduce drug use.

Evan Steinruck, a junior who plays football, basketball and soccer, said testing would highlight the drug issue and get coaches talking more about the dangers of drug use.

Among students, including athletes, at the school, "Drug use is common," he said.

Mary Ochiltree, a sophomore who participates in basketball and track, also supports the drug-testing proposal but said there could be a downside.

"We want more kids to turn out and be active at school. Will this discourage them?" Ochiltree asked.

A 2003 study by the University of Michigan of 76,000 students in middle and high schools found no significant difference in student drug use between schools with random testing and those without.

Jennifer Kern, a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that criticizes the U.S. war on drugs and supports a health-based approach to dealing with drug use, cited the study as evidence that drug testing isn't effective.

"Testing may actually be counterproductive if it keeps some kids from activities that would allow them to be supervised after school and connected with caring adults," she said.

The longest-running student-drug-testing program in Washington is in the Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County. Superintendent Richard Jones said students are subject to progressive discipline if test results come back positive, and they must undergo drug- and alcohol-abuse assessments and follow any treatment recommendations.

He said surveys show that drug use is down among students. There also is anecdotal evidence from teachers that students perform better in class, and anecdotal evidence from students that testing makes it easier for them to say no to drugs.

"It works," Jones said. "It's a good thing for our community, and it's a good thing for kids."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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