Rockhurst High School drug testing policy sends ripple through city

The new drug testing policy at one local high school has sent a ripple through Kansas City.

Starting with the 2013-2014 school year, Rockhurst High School will be collecting hair samples from students for random drug testing – and participation is mandatory.

Officials at the Jesuit school tell 41 Action News approximately 60 strands of hair will be cut from the selected students' heads or bodies (private areas excluded) and sent off for testing by a company called Psychemedics. A staff member at Rockhurst is a barber and will be handling the hair collection.

The school will test for the use of a variety of substances over the previous 90 days, including cocaine, PCP, opiates, methamphetamine, marijuana and binge alcohol.

See policies from other districts around the metro | http://bit.ly/11b1Al1

"Our point is, if we do encounter a student who has made some bad decisions with drugs or alcohol, we will be able to intervene, get the parents involved, get him help if necessary, and then help him get back on a path of better decision making, healthier choices for his life," Rockhurst Principal Greg Harkness said.

According to the new policy, if a student tests positive for any of the substances, the guidance counselor assigned to that student is notified. The counselor will then bring in the parents and the student to have a conversation about how to best get the student help.

The student is given 90 days to be drug free. No administrative personnel are ever told, and the incident is only noted in the student's guidance file. That file is destroyed upon graduation and never sent to any college or university. The only way anyone would ever see the documents is if files were subpoenaed.

So what led to the school's new drug policy?

The answer is at least five-fold: a significant change in students' perceptions, natural teen transformation, publicized changes with marijuana in our country, new research on brain development and the Internet.

Rockhurst recently surveyed students using an outside company, and found students' perceptions about drug use were actually much different than reality.

"What was most alarming for us is that when you asked our students if everyone else is doing it, they said 'Yes.' But, in fact, they weren't. It's that perception I think among teenagers today that fuels the peer pressure – that there's this idea that 'Everyone is doing it, so I guess I have to do it myself,'" Harkness said.

While the survey was enlightening, teenage transformation and the Internet played significant parts in the school's decision, as well.

"Adolescents by their very nature are also spinning off to be very independent, so there are things that they do behind their parents' back – that the best kids do behind their parents' back – simply because they are beginning that process of individuation and moving on," Harkness said. "I have never had an experience as a counselor where parents were completely aware of everything that was going on – and perhaps it should be that way. Part of an adolescent's life is to be resourceful.

"What's different today is that the way in which an adolescent is resourceful is, instead of five friends at school, we have 700 friends on Facebook. We have the ability to speak in a global community instead of a neighborhood community. So, the influences are very different today," he said.

Influences are different and the risks are greater.

When talking about brain development, Harkness' tone changed just slightly. It was calculated and concerned – in almost a parental way. Substance abuse at this critical age can have long-lasting effects, can be much harsher on adolescents than on adults and much more addictive.

"I think the reason you see school administrators – such as myself – constantly in dialogue about these questions is because we know this new evidence is there about development, and we know the impact that intoxication can have on a developing brain," Harkness said. "We also know teenagers are more susceptible to addiction and intoxication because of their stage of brain development. And so it all adds up to this perfect storm of a conversation, so to speak. We care about kids, and we care about what's happening to them."

With continued coverage over the fight to legalize marijuana, the fact that some states have already legalized it and the ongoing discussion that is had about the drug, teens are getting conflicting information. This, too, played into Rockhurst's decision.

For two years, parents and administrators have discussed the reasons for and against drug testing.

Tammy Privitera has three boys, two of whom are at Rockhurst – one freshman, one junior. Privitera said there were a lot of questions over the past two years, many of which have been answered at this point. She said at first, parents were reluctant and had a lot of questions, but they're more comfortable now. It's the students who are still mixed.

"I'm going to be honest – they see both sides of it. I think my junior is a little bit more interested in talking about it because it affects more of that age student than it does a freshman," Privitera said. "We've had lots of conversations – that's the thing I like most about it – it has opened up conversations around the dinner table with both my boys, and that's been great for our family."

Matthew Brocato, the junior class president at Rockhurst, reiterated students' concerns.

"On the one hand, there are students who've come to me and the administration saying that this is a great thing – they've been needing to do this for a while now; they're very impressed that Rockhurst has taken this step," Brocato said. "On the other hand, there's the students who think this is an invasion of privacy. Some parents think that they're the role of parenting away from them. There's different issues that come up, but for the most part, the majority are okay with it."

Many of the questions parents had have been asked and answered.

Questions like:

My son is on medication for a specific reason (whether it be because of an athletic injury, or ADHD or some other condition), will that cause problems with drug testing?
Answer: No, that's all taken into account and will not affect the drug test results negatively.

Will record of my son testing positive be sent to colleges and universities?
Answer: No. There are several different kinds of files kept on a student: Academic, which is sent to colleges and universities; disciplinary, which is not sent to colleges and universities and is, in fact, destroyed upon graduation; and guidance files, which are also never sent to colleges or universities and are destroyed upon graduation.

What about students who go to extremes to try and beat the test to avoid testing positive if they know they've used?
Answer: Hair dye or bleach of any kind will not affect the outcome. There are extremely harsh chemicals out there which will strip the hair shaft of evidence, but it becomes obvious to all involved that drastic measures have been taken and would likely be treated as a positive result. Also, the company spokesperson says they fully anticipate a rise in people/companies trying to provide, and profit from, products to strip hair of evidence as the popularity of hair testing grows. It is something being closely monitored.

What about the kids who shave every inch of hair off the bodies to avoid testing?
Answer: The school isn't sure yet how they'd handle this, but officials are leaning toward treatment as a positive test result.

What if my son has a glass of champagne at a family wedding? Or a sip of Eucharistic win?
The test shows amount of usage, and to garner a positive, there would have to be a significant amount of alcohol present, indicating a binge situation.

Is this based on any specific incident or problem within Rockhurst or with Rockhurst students?
Answer: The school adamantly replies, "NO," even though they know there are people who believe this is tied to a handful of past incidents. The drugs they will test for are the drugs known to be a problem nationally with teens, not because of any known or perceived issue within Rockhurst.

"I think the problem today is much larger than parents think it is and school administrators and guidance counselors think it is," Harkness said.

The adults at Rockhurst believe they are being proactive to give students a reason to make smart choices, and almost every parent is now onboard.

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