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WHITEFISH - Whitefish High School officials say they are backing away from a controversial mandatory drug testing plan in favor of a proposal that features voluntary testing.

The school board recently decided to take the new direction after the original proposal got bogged down in criticism. The plan would have required any student involved in extracurricular activities to submit to the tests.

"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."

Critics say the original policy would have pushed students away from healthy activities.

Supporters say it was the only sure way to stamp out drug use.

A new plan, still in the works, would ask athletes to voluntarily agree to drug testing. It would also allow mandatory testing based on the "reasonable suspicion" of school officials trained in detecting drug use.

A final decision is months away, the board says.

"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."

House said he does not expect any decisions on a policy before the start of the school year.

Students suspected of drug use, under the new proposal, would be tested with their parents' permission. A counselor, and maybe even police, could be called in with a positive test.

If parents don't allow a test, the student will be sent home and the counselor will be put in touch with the family for follow-up meetings.

Those who test positive after agreeing to voluntary testing would lose activity privileges.

"You can find evidence to support both positions on student drug testing," House 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."

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