LIVINGSTON, NJ — The current exploration of a potential random drug-testing program at Livingston High School (LHS) was explained in depth on Monday to members of the Livingston Township Council, which invited Superintendent of Schools Christina Steffner, LHS Principal Mark Stern and members of the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) to its conference meeting in order to alleviate some concerns about the program.
According to Steffner, the program is a strategy that the LBOE wants to explore as a means of early intervention to deter Livingston students from using drugs and alcohol. She said her purpose in attending the meeting was not only to clarify some details of the program, but to also invite the mayor and council to “have the courage” to join the LBOE in exploring random drug testing as an option.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there and people are very scared because they don’t understand what it is,” she said. “This is not about how bad the drug problem is, this is about how much you’re willing to do to keep your kids off drugs and alcohol. Livingston’s drug problem is not different than any other district in the state or in the country…we’re all fighting this battle. This is really about putting every single weapon into our arsenal.”
According to Steffner, research is undisputed in the fact that if the onset of drug use is delayed and the frequency is diminished, the odds of addiction are reduced. She provided the following information about what the district is currently doing with regard to drugs and alcohol in the schools, what random drug testing would look like, and how the LBOE plans to proceed.
What Livingston Public Schools is already doing:
“What we do here at Livingston is what most schools do across the state and across the country,” said Steffner.
Since the early 70’s, according to state statute, school districts have had the right to drug test any student who they believe is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to Steffner. This is deemed as “under-suspicion drug testing.”
In 1985 in New Jersey, the Supreme Court decided that a school district is not an extension of the law, but rather an “extension of the home.” As such, the district does not need “probable cause,” but rather “reasonable suspicion,” or something more than a hunch, to drug test a student.
“We need reasonable suspicion because we function as extensions of parents, not as extensions of the law,” said Steffner. “We’ve been doing all of those things here and everywhere else across the state for years and we still lose thousands of kids every single year to drugs and alcohol—and we lose a lot of them that never reach their full potential.”
In addition to under-suspicion drug testing, the Livingston district is required by law to teach drug and alcohol education every year in grades K-12 and also offers programs for parents. However, Steffner said parents typically do not attend these programs “for fear that it might be interpreted that their child is using drugs or alcohol.”
Additionally, the district has a robust student-assistance program with three counselors whose job is to predominantly deal with students who have issues—specifically those with drugs and alcohol issues, according to Steffner. The problem is, Steffner said, these counselors often only deal with students who are “already on that continuum.”
“The idea is to try and put something at the beginning of that continuum to keep kids from getting onto that continuum,” she said.
Why random student drug testing?
“Random drug testing is about deterring and early intervention,” said Steffner. “It’s not about catching kids and punishing kids. It is not punitive.”
The state currently has a statute in place about random student drug testing, which Steffner said is a completely different program from under-suspicion student drug testing.
“The analogy I like to make for people is: when our children are toddlers, we teach them not to go near the electrical sockets, but we still put the plugs in because we know that they don’t understand it at a level we need them to understand it,” said Steffner. “Teenagers don’t understand it the way we need them to understand it, no matter how bright they are, because they process the information differently—and there’s a whole bunch of research that speaks to that.”
In 2015, there were 52,000 deaths due to overdose in the United States, according to Steffner, who added that 105 of those deaths occurred in New Jersey to people under the age of 24.
During the 2016-2017 school year, Livingston Public Schools drug tested a total of 35 students who were sent down to the office because they were believed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. According to Steffner, 83 percent of them tested positive.
Steffner also reported that a total of eight juvenile arrests were made in Livingston in 2015, including two alcohol arrests and six drug arrests. In 2016, she said juvenile arrests in Livingston totaled 34 alcohol arrests and 13 drug arrests.
The difference between “under suspicion” and “random” drug testing:
According to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the New Jersey Supreme Court decision, there can be no loss of academic time under the random drug-testing program, meaning that a student cannot be suspended if tested positive during a random drug test.
Steffner provided the following examples of both testing methods:
If a student is brought down to the office for being “under suspicion,” he or she must be seen by a physician and must immediately submit to a drug test. In this case, should the student test positive for drugs or alcohol, he or she is suspended and loses all privileges for at least 30 days. If asked on a college application if he or she has ever been suspended from school, the honest answer would be “yes” and the student would have to explain why.
If a student in the “testing pool” is chosen to be randomly drug tested, he or she provides a urine sample during school hours. If the sample is negative, he or she is sent back to class; if the sample is positive, or “non-negative,” the sample will be tested a second time through a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GCMS) at a certified lab.
If the second test is also positive, the sample will then be review by a medical review officer, who is specially trained in reading drug tests. That doctor will then call the parent to determine the facts—like, for instance, if the student is prescribed Adderall.
“The parent may say, ‘He’s on Adderall and I don’t want to school to know,’ and that’s their right,” said Steffner. “The doctor will then ask for the name of the pharmacy and the doctor who prescribed it and those things will be checked out. If they check out, the report comes back to the school that the child is negative.”
Should the report come back positive with no legitimate reason as to why the student is on that drug, the school district decides the consequences, Steffner said. There is no suspension in this case, but consequences can include short removal from activities, such as sports, the school play, student government and other extra-curricular activities.
The student must also submit to counseling, be evaluated by an outside drug-addictions counselor and follow the counselor’s recommendations. The student would then submit a negative screen in order to return to activities.
According to Steffner, the district is not permitted to share the results of these drug tests with police, the athletic director, the student’s teachers, etc. In other words, for instance, a coach would not be permitted to punish an athlete for missing practice or a game because the coach would not know the reason for the student’s absence.
“However, as a former high school and collegiate coach, you better believe if I’m counting on an athlete and they don’t show up, I’m not going to be happy,” said Steffner. “If you’re an athlete, you don’t want to miss a game; if you’re in the play and it’s opening night, you don’t want to miss opening night. So the goal is to give them a reason to say no.”
Steffner clarified that even if the random testing program is adopted, the “under suspicion” program will always be in place according to New Jersey law.
“The law is very clear: when a teacher or staff member utters those word, ‘I think this child is under the influence’… that child has to be tested,” said Steffner. “Under suspicion deals with the kids who are already using drugs and alcohol and it’s really impacting their lives—we see it, it’s obvious, there are symptoms there. Random is about those kids who fly under our radar—they’re holding it together, they may just be thinking about it, they may just once in a while, they’re just starting down that road.
“The goal is to start helping them before they get to the point where they’re using regularly.”
How random drug testing works:
In most districts, according to Steffner, students receive a random number, which is put into a number generator. The generator will pull a certain number of students from each grade and the nurse then has a week to test them.
The student is called down and asked to empty his or her pockets and submit a urine sample, which will determine the preliminary results within a few minutes. According to Steffner, the water is turned off in the bathroom and the toilet water is blued so that the student cannot dilute the sample.
The test cup also has a stick inside it that will determine whether the student added any chemicals in an attempt to alter the sample. Additionally, the temperature is tested to make sure it reflects the student’s body temperature.
The urine will be tested on the spot for cannabis, stimulants, opiates, ecstasy and other drugs. If it is not negative, the result is considered “non-negative” because the initial screen is not fool proof, according to Steffner.
If the test is “non-negative,” it means one of three things: it was a faulty test cup, there is something legal in the student’s system that is being read, or something illegal is being read. There is still no reason at this point to believe that the student is under the influence and there is no immediate punishment.
According to Steffner, once a student is in the random drug-testing program, he or she will remain in the program until graduation. If a student chooses to be removed from the program, he or she must be removed for a full year to avoid the student coming in out of the program for sporting or other purposes.
The game plan:
Steffner and Stern said that moving forward, the district intends to hold parent forums on the subject, to conduct focus groups with students in order to hear their feedback and to visit other schools that do random drug testing in order to get a better understanding what works and what doesn’t.
At Hunterdon Central High School, where Steffner previously served at superintendent, 6,751 students were tested out of the 20,738 students in the testing pool over a span of about nine years. The percentage of positive results was approximately 1.3 percent, or 86 students, according to Steffner.
“Depending on what research you look at, you can plan on anywhere between 20-and-40 percent of kids having used an illicit drug or alcohol in the last 30 days,” said Steffner. “We’re at 1 percent positive. People say, ‘So you tested all those kids to catch 86 kids?’ No, it’s the 6,665 kids that didn’t test positive—that’s where the success is.”
Research conducted in another school revealed a decrease in drug use within six months of randomly drug testing. When the random drug testing stopped for approximately six months, Steffner said the drug use increased by 90 percent.
Initially, Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein said he thought the program sounded invasive, but was reassured after learning more about it and was looking forward to educating the public more about it.
Steffner reiterated that her purpose on Monday was not to ask the council to consider supporting the concept, but rather to consider the concept of exploring it.
“If we don’t do that, I think we’re falling short of what our responsibilities are,” said Steffner. “Whether we lose one child or 50 children, losing one child to a drug overdose or a child who doesn’t reach their full potential is unacceptable.”
According to the LBOE, the first parent forum will be held in the middle of October.