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WHITEFISH - School officials have backed away from mandatory random drug testing at Whitefish High School, but they now are considering a plan that would include voluntary testing of student athletes.

"We're trying to balance everyone's interests," said assistant principal Jeff Peck. "We're doing what we think is the right thing to do, to create a safe environment for all our students."

Previously, the school board had considered a controversial program that would have required random drug testing for any student participating in extracurricular activities.

Proponents said it was the only sure way to stamp out drug use.

Critics, however, said such a policy could push some kids away from sports and other group activities known to help curb drug use. They also raised questions about trust and presumption of innocence and individual privacy rights, and about whether some kids might turn to drugs that are arguably more dangerous, but harder to detect in the tests.

On June 9, the board narrowly voted to study the feasibility of an amended policy. The first part of that policy includes a voluntary drug-testing program for extracurricular participants. The second part would allow testing of any student based on "reasonable suspicion."

"All we've really done is open the door for more research into the issue," said district Superintendent Jerry House. "We know we're still going to have lots of commentary, lots of conversation, lots of ongoing research before this is over."

A final decision as to what the policy might entail and, more importantly, how it might be paid for, is still months away, he said, "and I don't see it happening before school starts again in the fall. There's just too much ground to cover."

Currently, House said, the district is looking to a three-pronged drug-prevention approach.

A substantially bolstered drug education program "is the first prong," House said, and would include information on drug abuse and prevention.

The second prong is "getting some professional assistance for the school, a licensed counselor, to offer real help for those kids who need it."

The third part, he said, "is the actual policies - the voluntary testing and the reasonable suspicion program."

House imagines the three parts as forming the points of a triangle, "and in the middle of that triangle is cultural change. We're not looking at zero tolerance, because that's never going to happen. We can't change the entire town of Whitefish. We can't change parenting and what happens at home. But we can change the school's culture as it relates to drug use."

Changing teenage culture "won't be easy," Peck admitted, "but we feel that we have a duty to provide a climate in the high school that allows each student to maximize their academic, emotional and social potential. We know we have a problem with chemicals, and we know we can't provide that safe climate until we deal with the problem."

Peck's goal for extracurricular participants is "100 percent compliance with the voluntary testing," although he expects something short of perfect buy-in.

As to the "suspicion-based" testing for the rest of the student body, "I think that could be very effective, because it helps us identify specific problems and intervene."

According to House, four people - the assistant principal, the school nurse, the activities director and the school police officer - would be "trained in what to look for" as part of the suspicion-based program. "What are the signs? What tips you off? How do you make that judgment call?"

Likewise, teachers would be offered some basic training, "because some of our staff doesn't know how to tell the difference between hash and a potato cake."

Students, however, would not be enlisted. "What we want to avoid is creating a school of narcs," he said, adding that student tips would not be considered "reasonable suspicion."

However, if a student appeared to be on drugs at the school, or appeared to be using drugs in general, House said, the teacher could refer the matter to one of the four trained individuals. They, in turn, would interview the student and then, if necessary, contact the parents.

"We're not going to test anyone without mom and dad knowing what's going on," House said. "I don't believe in that captive audience stuff."

If the parents allow testing and the results are positive, he said, the school's new professional counselor will be called in, and perhaps the local authorities, as well. If the parent does not allow the test, the student will be sent home and the counselor will be put in touch with the family for follow-up meetings.

As to the voluntary testing program for extracurricular participants, House said, a random test showing positive will be repeated to ensure accuracy. Students would lose activity privileges for testing positive, and would be dropped from extracurricular roles after a third offense.

Students not volunteering for the random tests will be covered by the school's existing drug and alcohol policy, which provides similar punishments for those actually caught in the act.

Coaches - who were early advocates for mandatory random testing - will know which athletes have opted in and which have not, but House does not imagine any pressure will be placed on those who choose not to be tested.

"I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "We have a culture of trust and respect at the school, and I think coaches will honor each student's personal choice."

The real question, he said, is "how to pay for all of this?"

Some staffers and not a few local citizens have agreed to seek out grant money for the program, money to bolster drug education and also to pay a professional counselor. Currently, House said, those issues remain stumbling blocks to the program.

The board's narrow vote of approval on first reading "is really just a starting point," House said, and it's not uncommon for policies to go through three or even four readings before the finer points are worked out and a final decision is made.

A second reading, he said, is not likely before late summer, and a decision will not be in place for the start of the 2008-2009 school year.

"We've answered the question of whether we want to move forward," House said, "and that answer is yes. Now, we have to settle the process and the payment plan, and that's going to take some time."

The good news, he said, is that the conversation has begun. Sure, it's been heated and emotional at times, and often downright confusing.

"You can find evidence to support both positions on student drug testing," he said. "But everyone I've heard from, in both camps, has our students' interests at heart. They all want what's best for our kids.

"You can do all the research and talk to all the experts, but in the end what's best for your community and your kids, that's a decision you have to buckle down and make for yourself. That's what we've done, and I think it's the right choice."

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