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As District 12 considers drug testing students, negatives look more persuasive than positives

In April, a month before Jacob Eichengreen graduated from Palmer High School, he played teacher.

A Colorado Springs-based pre- and post-employment drug-testing company had organized the inaugural Intention Prevention Town Hall meeting, hoping to bring together community members to talk about teen drug use. The company, called Conspire!, recognized that drug-prevention and education in the schools wasn't working — many of the clients who walked through their doors each day had started using during their school years.

So Conspire! recruited seven students from the Colorado Springs Conservatory — a comprehensive after-school/weekend program for performing artists ages 5 to 19 — to join a teen steering committee to ask them about drug testing. Eichengreen was enthusiastic to be a part of the process, since he believes parents are largely unaware that so many kids think doing drugs is no big deal.

"They see my kid does this, this and this, gets good grades, is involved in so many things, seems so responsible, doesn't get in car accidents, doesn't speed, has great friends," says the 18-year-old. "It's like, oh yeah, that's fine, but on the weekends — most likely — they might smoke a joint or something just for fun."

According to studies, nearly half (47 percent) of American's young people today have tried an illicit drug by the time they finish high school. Renee Steinwand, a D-12 board member, has said that from talking with students, she thinks 75 to 80 percent of Cheyenne Mountain students are using drugs and/or alcohol.

But to hear Eichengreen tell it, all those stats are low. Extremely low. On a "completely unscientific" basis, he and his friends estimate that 95 percent of Palmer students have tried or do drugs regularly. Add to that a conversation he had with some friends from Harrison School District 2: "They were like, 'Ninety-five? What are you talking about? Everybody at Harrison does them.'"

"We don't think people really understand how deeply seeded this problem is," says Eichengreen, who will attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut this fall. "Everyone's like, 'Oh, that's not my kid. My kid isn't out partying,' and it's like, 'Well, actually even if your kid tells you precisely where they're gonna be, they might still be doing it.'"

It's a tough idea for parents to accept. Even tougher, however, may be the newest anti-drug effort being considered by officials in at least one local school district — random drug testing. Not only is it bound to get them sued, it may not even work.

Sniffed out

In October 2008, a routine canine search of lockers at Cheyenne Mountain High School hit on prescription medications. While interviewing the student involved to confirm the legitimacy of the drugs, D-12 superintendent Walt Cooper says information about some deeper-rooted problems "bubbled up unexpectedly."

Detective Bill Walsh, the Colorado Springs Police Department's D-12 school resource officer, turned the discoveries over to the department. The week before school let out for winter break, as students wrapped up their semester assignments and exams, officers briefed administrators on what they had learned as a result of their investigation: Approximately 25 students were tied in some way to black tar heroin use at the high school.

They shared the names of those students and the role each played. Cooper says the process then diverged into two paths. CSPD continued with its criminal investigation of the dealers, and the district immediately started reaching out to parents of the identified students.

In one day near the end of that week, the district together with police spent about 14 hours speaking individually with each of the 25 kids and their parents. Officers made it clear that the department wasn't looking to develop criminal cases against the students, just the distributors. According to the supervising officer on the case, Lt. Howard Black, the students involved were not a part of one "clique." They were girls and boys, juniors and seniors, and "straight-A students."

Some were only peripherally involved — they had received a text message from or attended a party with somebody else on the list. Others were buying $20 to $35 balloons, amounts that provided about 15 hits each, directly from the dealers. Most who were using were smoking the heroin but a few, including one who was mainlining, had spiraled into hard-core use and were transported by ambulance directly to rehab with their parents' permission. A majority of the teens thought they'd been using opium — a "natural" and therefore, in their uninformed opinion, less harmful drug — and struggled with the reality that this was black tar heroin.

But it was black tar heroin — a cheap and highly addictive opiate produced from morphine, primarily in Mexico. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican heroin is referred to as "black tar" because it may be sticky, like roofing tar, or hard like coal — a result of illicit manufacturing with crude processing methods. It is the "most rapidly acting of the opiates," and chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infections of the heart, pulmonary complications, clogged blood vessels and risk of death by overdose. In this case, Mexican citizens were responsible for bringing the drug to Colorado Springs. And while most students met only with the dealers' local contacts, some connected one-on-one with the dealers themselves, passing text messages back and forth and riding with them in their cars.

By early December, CSPD had arrested four locals: former CMHS students Nathan Stack, then 18, Kevin Stave, 19, and Stave's brother, Johnathan Stave, 22; plus James Petrakis, 20. They also arrested two Mexican citizens, one of whom was a juvenile.

And when school reopened in January, D-12 was asking tougher questions about its drug-prevention programs.

Smack downers

Seven months after the news broke, and three months after that Intention Prevention meeting, D-12 school board members invite the public to join them, local attorneys, drug-testing vendors and school administrators at a work session regarding drug testing specifically in their district. The roundtable of "experts" seats 18. And though the district has notified all parents of the meeting via e-mail and its Web site, the public crowd maxes out at two members of the media, a couple teachers and nine parents.

Many of the panel participants wear two hats this evening: one of professional and one of parent. Rich Young, managing partner with Holme Roberts & Owen and principal draftsman of the World Anti-Doping Code adopted by the Olympic movement, is the father of three D-12 graduates. Magistrate Lisa Kirkman, El Paso County's drug court magistrate, has four kids in the district.

Young and Kirkman have come prepared. Kirkman shares stories from drug court, telling her audience, "I'm seeing a big increase in Cheyenne Mountain students. More than I ever have." And one of the first things Young says — "A lot of the testing programs approved have been for junior and senior high" — raises eyebrows across the room.

It's going to be a long night.

Young launches into a list of 12 considerations when developing a drug-testing program. One in particular, which students to test, dominates the evening's discussion.

Early conversation indicated that all students in extra-curricular activities might be tested, as is done in many programs nationwide. But Young refers to the case of Trinidad School District No. 1 v. Lopez, which was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court in 1998. Trinidad's case involved a high school marching band student who refused to drug test, alleging that since his membership in the band was tied to enrollment in for-credit, graded music classes, he should not have to submit to a suspicionless test that invaded his personal right to privacy.

The courts agreed, and held that Trinidad's policy was unconstitutional. They also determined that while the district "established that it has a drug abuse problem, the means chosen to deal with that problem were too broad." (Trinidad subsequently dropped its entire drug-testing policy.)

In D-12, eight of its high school's largest extra-curricular activities — vocal music, science Olympiad, band, drama, newspaper, yearbook, student council and Delta Epsilon Chi (a career preparation association better known as DECA) — earn kids academic grades. And while Young said the district could still choose to drug-test these students, it wasn't necessarily advisable with the precedent now set in Colorado.

Testing student-athletes — 46 percent of D-12's student body — is not yet off the table. Nor is the possibility of testing students who purchase parking permits.

When the latter option comes up tonight, though, grumbles resonate through the audience. Yes, permits are a privilege, and yes, there's a more serious safety concern — and, thus, a more defensible argument for drug testing — if kids who are driving are also doing drugs. But D-12 doesn't offer other transportation to students. Is that a problem? The question goes unanswered.

Another question going unanswered is what will happen when a student tests positive.

Eichengreen, who is solidly against testing, says the Intention Prevention committee talked about students trying drugs because they're curious. One person says, "Don't do drugs. They're bad." Another says, "Actually, they're a lot of fun." And the student wants to know precisely what's true.

"It's really about your own personal experience and being able to say from a position of authority, 'This is why [I'm going to do drugs or not],'" Eichengreen says. "So if that one time, somebody tried pot or something, and they were randomly tested for drugs the next day, and it was the first time, and they're a good student and whatnot, they could have the potential to lose everything."

Drug possession can earn felony charges in court. But that's not really what Eichengreen is arguing; rather, his concerns lie in privacy rights. Who really knows what may happen to the manila folder that holds a student's results?

Board president Steve Mulliken insists that any program D-12 institutes will be focused on non-punitive ways to get help for those found to be using. But discussions at the work session lead to whether college athletics programs would be interested in applicants submitting negative drug-test results. Does that mean colleges could assume that a D-12 student-athlete who didn't submit negative results may have tested positive?

A third unresolved issue: the potential for lawsuits.

Joking about the high number of district parents who are lawyers lightens the mood, to an extent. Kelly Dude, D-12 legal counsel, says, "You're gonna get sued. It's gonna happen." To which Mulliken replies that parents have already threatened to do so.

In the end, Cooper brings the discussion back to what he's stood by all along: "If we can't do it well, and make it effective, there's no sense in doing it."

And by his own admission, the odds aren't good.

"There's about one way to get this right," he says, "and about a hundred ways to get it wrong."

'Urine Luck'

In short, D-12 isn't anywhere close to moving ahead with a plan. Administrators haven't even gotten into a public discussion about who will pay for testing, and that's not a small consideration. Depending on type, tests can range from $25 to $70 each, and then there are administrative or staff costs. Even a promising program is unlikely to be implemented if the costs are too high.

The million-dollar question, however, isn't related to money at all: Would testing have identified the black tar heroin situation?

Conspire! president and COO Lynette Crow says she isn't sure. Cooper isn't, either. But, he says, "Quite honestly, catching kids is not what we're after. That's not the goal."

The goal, instead, is to provide a strong and obvious deterrent. Cooper hopes that for kids who might consider using, testing will give them a reason not to. But as he says, a random drug test is not going to deter habitual users or even have much of an impact.

"If someone really, really, really wants to figure out a way, if they're an addict and they want to evade a drug test, in this situation they just won't go out for the sport," he says. "We're not naïve enough to think that kids that are already way down the road into making bad choices around drugs are going to be impacted by a policy like this."

Jennifer Rivera, executive director of the El Paso and Teller Counties Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, therapist and D-12 parent, agrees that for the ones who are really in trouble, "it's actually probably not going to do a lot."

She raises another concern as well.

"The major con is that it is going to give people a false sense of security: 'My school has drug testing. I don't have to worry about my kids using drugs.'"

Plus, black tar heroin — along with a majority of "illicit drugs" — doesn't hang around to be discovered. Rivera says that unless the school district is going to test each student every day of the week, the chances of getting positives aren't great.

"The hardest [drugs] to catch, because of the half-life of the drug in the body, are the ones that people like: [cocaine], amphetamines, speed, ecstasy, heroin, alcohol," she says. "The body is remarkably efficient at cleaning those out of the system."

For example, in order to obtain a positive urinalysis for a student using heroin, you have to test within 48 to 96 hours after ingestion. Even if a kid uses on Friday night, and happens to be randomly selected to be tested during sports practice Monday afternoon, you may not get a positive.

"The one that is not so easy [to clean out of the system] is marijuana," Rivera says, and adds with a laugh, "That's also the least dangerous."

(Others would challenge Rivera, stating that today's marijuana isn't like that of a few decades ago; weed today can be laced with PCP, cocaine, or other substances, giving it a reputation, valid or not, as a "gateway drug.")

And then there are hundreds of products with names like the Whizzinator and Urine Luck, available online and in local stores like Freaky's, that promise to clean drugs out of urine.

Kirkman says she "absolutely" believes testing deters use, but she also is realistic about what Cheyenne Mountain is up against, since the high-performing district is full of kids who "are smart, do well in school, in athletics, and would be desperate to pass a drug test."

Beware the rush

According to the National Education Association, "mandatory drug and alcohol testing of students without probable cause is an unwarranted and unconstitutional invasion of privacy and opposes such testing."

The National Association of Social Workers has said random testing is "invasive and counterproductive to combating drug and alcohol abuse in schools," and that students are, "in essence guilty until proven innocent."

And in the words of the Association of Addiction Professionals, "The challenges are manifold in determining whom to test, what to test for, what safeguards there are against false-testing processes, how the privacy of a student's health status is protected, and whether drop-out rates would soar as a result of this testing."

Beyond these uncertainties, there's another big one: whether it works.

There really is little research on random drug testing. A 2007 policy by the American Academy of Pediatrics states that random drug testing needs rigorous scientific evaluation, including studies of effectiveness and possible inadvertent harms, such as students decreasing their involvement in extra-curricular activities to avoid testing; increased family conflict due to positive test results; and a reduction of trust and connectedness by students in their schools.

"There's really no defensible and quantifiable research on either side," Cooper says, "because, any study or anything else around this issue has to rely on self-reported data by kids. ... So by its very nature it's unreliable."

How, then, did drug testing come into favor?

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it was constitutional to randomly test high school student athletes for drugs. And again in 2002, the court extended the ruling, by a 5-4 vote, to include all students involved in "competitive extracurricular activities."

In August of that year, the Bush administration's "drug czar," John Walters, released a guide through the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools" states that "As a deterrent, few methods work better or deliver clearer results. Drug testing of airline pilots and school bus drivers, for example, has made our skies and roads safer for travel. Parents, educators — indeed, anyone concerned about the welfare of our young people — should welcome the High Court's action."

Within a year, the U.S. Department of Education had funding to hand out grants supporting school drug testing. To date, about $26 million has been distributed.

The Student Drug-Testing Coalition (based on a study released in 2008 by Ringwalt, et al., published in the American Journal of Public Health) has determined that at a minimum, 16.5 percent of U.S. public schools test on a random basis, with a conservative estimate of at least 1 percent of districts adding programs annually.

In Colorado, no one organization even seems to track which districts are testing. Based on a media search and follow-up phone calls, there are at least four districts and one individual high school currently testing students: Holyoke in northeastern Colorado; Rangely in the northwest; Ignacio School District in the southwest; Sierra Grande in Blanca, 100 miles southwest of Pueblo; and Battle Mountain High School in Eagle County's Vail Valley. (In addition, ACE Community Challenge Charter in Denver, an outpatient substance abuse treatment facility turned charter school, received $150,000 in federal grant funding in 2008 for drug testing.)

The districts above range in size from about 250 to 800 students (as compared to D-12's 4,600), and most have had their programs for just two or three years. A Rangely representative says that in its district of about 500, they spent around $5,000 on drug testing during the 2008-09 school year, down from $9,000 in 2007-08.

And while other local districts like D-11 and D-20 say they haven't yet had any discussions about drug testing in their schools, they do admit they're keeping an eye on D-12's process.

"They're watching us with great intent, I know that for a fact," Cooper says. "I've heard that over and over and over."

'The Anti-Drug'

Whatever D-12 chooses to do, the district will likely do it within a comprehensive drug-prevention program. The problem with that is, everyone struggles with what comprehensive means.

On the education end, often-used programs like Project ALERT and D.A.R.E. don't get much respect. In fact, both the CSPD and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office have eliminated D.A.R.E. in recent years due to budget cuts.

Project ALERT is a research-based program that teaches the dangers of using and abusing drugs. Crow says that kids tell Conspire! "that D.A.R.E. and Project ALERT programs don't work."

"We laugh at them actually," says Veronica Legler, another Intention Prevention committee member and junior at Colorado Springs Early Colleges charter high school. "You have to do Project ALERT in sixth grade. And I went to West [Middle School]. Basically it was a free class. The guy talked, but nobody paid attention. People were writing notes to each other. It was just a boring class, an easy A."

She thinks that maybe when Project ALERT began (it was developed in 1984 and broadly disseminated in 1995) it had an impact, but in order to continue to keep new generations away from drugs and alcohol, programs need to evolve. Legler attaches the same sentiment to testing.

"Drug testing might work today, but five years from now, kids will figure out how to go around it," she says. "There are kids who are already figuring that out. Kids will stop caring about it."

The picture isn't much better on the treatment end, either.

"There aren't a lot of good programs in Colorado Springs for kids who are in trouble," Rivera says. "And there aren't a lot of resources out there to fix that. We have some outpatient treatment centers, but integrated programs that get kids reconnected with their parents? Those are few and far between."

Some professionals suggest that it's the parental connection in the first place that needs to strengthened — more so than any drug education program. Cooper points out that during the black tar heroin incident at CMHS, text messaging helped facilitate the drug purchasing and using.

"I wished I would've learned this eight years ago as a parent," he says. "One of the most rudimentary things that parents can to do help with this is — and this seems so simple — at night, have their kids plug in their phones in their parents' bedrooms. When the parents go to bed, or the kids go to bed, the cell phone goes in there to charge. Because nothing good happens in a text message or on a cell phone at 2 o'clock in the morning."

Rivera says that what research has really demonstrated is that the kids who avoid drugs tend to be afraid of disappointing or upsetting their parents.

"Parents are literally the best defense against drug use of their kids," she says. "Having the conversation, letting your kids know unequivocally that you would be very hurt and disappointed, that you would take away their car, that you would sit in their classrooms for six weeks."

Unfortunately, Rivera believes a lot of parents still believe that their kids aren't thinking about drugs, and if they bring it up, that'll make them think about it.

"The problem is, I've talked to my kid about math," Rivera says, "and it's not made him want to do math.

"You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Parenting should be significantly uncomfortable for large periods of time. And if it's not, you're not doing it right.

"And it's inconvenient. It is inconvenient to wake up at 2 and again at 4 and again at 6 to breastfeed. It is inconvenient to take a diaper bag filled with 20 pounds of stuff and haul it around on your shoulder. But that's your job. You signed up for it. And it's really inconvenient to sit down and talk to your 14-year-old about marijuana, cocaine and blow jobs. But that's your job, and if you don't talk to them about it, the drug dealers will."

Agreeing that parents are the best line of defense against drug use by kids, in 1998 the White House began the "Parents. The Anti-Drug." campaign, specifically to equip parents and other adults with tools that would help them raise drug-free kids. The campaign is based on studies by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America that found "drug use [is] significantly lower among kids who've learned a great deal about drugs at home."

The bottom line, Rivera says, is "we expect too damn much of the schools. Their job is to educate our children. Not to parent them, not to impart values and belief systems. And so, passing drug education and drug testing and refusal skills onto them is unfair."

Pass the word

Ask the students what they think will work, and their answers, in many ways, also relate to effective parenting and direct communication. Eichengreen believes if parents helped their kids get into something they love, something they're truly passionate about, the kids wouldn't want to risk losing that activity to drugs.

"There are some kids who are just so into football that they will give anything to stay in football," he says. "They won't even chance getting caught because they just won't try it: 'Oh, I love football too much.' And then there are other kids who do football because it's the best thing for them, because there's nothing else to do ... and they're like, 'Eh, football's great, but I still like to have a great time on the weekend.' And then even further, there are the kids who are like, 'Well, my dad's making me play football. I don't care.'"

Both Eichengreen and Legler say for them, attending the Conservatory was the deterrent. In Eichengreen's words: "For me, I was like, 'I'm not going to risk that for anything.' ...

"If we could get a program like that for every single kid, drugs wouldn't even be an issue."

But programs like that aren't out there for every single kid. And drugs are an issue. So Eichengreen echoes Rivera's comments about communication with parents, but adds it should be an even larger community discussion.

"People cannot be afraid to talk about this," he says. "It's the same thing, all these controversial issues: abortion, sex, drugs, drinking. Anything that has the label of 'controversial' on it will never be solved if you don't talk about it."

As editor of Palmer High School's student newspaper, Eichengreen often ran into struggles with administrators when wanting to run pieces about drugs and alcohol. His adviser always supported him, saying if you want to run it, run it. But Eichengreen found himself in the principal's office a couple of times, listening to the administration tell him the paper couldn't give helpful tips or advice related to drinking or doing drugs (like what to do when your drunk friend has passed out) because "it's going to seem like we say it's OK."

To him, there was a more serious issue than that.

"We just don't want our friends to die."

kakens@csindy.com


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