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Schools employ many different ways to test for drugs

Spt_jd_09aug_Drug TestingThe misconception is easy to have, and often it leads to the wrong conclusion: Only teenagers in big cities can lay their hands on drugs.

“You can get drugs anywhere,” said Billy Burns, the athletic director at Logan High, a school in a remote area of eastern New Mexico with about 85 students in grades 8-12. “If you believe the hearsay, a small town is just like a big town. We have the same problems.”

And so Logan randomly drug tests its school’s athletes, even though it has been 11 years since it has had a positive test on the first try, Burns said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rio Rancho Public Schools last month became the largest New Mexico school system, to date, to decide it is worth the trouble – and the cost – to dangle this deterrent before their teenagers.

Starting with 2015-16, athletes at Class 6A Rio Rancho and Cleveland, two of the five largest high schools in New Mexico, will be randomly selected for drug tests. RRPS is spending $25,000 this year out of its athletic budget to do it.

It is doing so in large part because its coaches, across the board, pushed for testing to be added. This, after a school year (2014-15) of more substance-related suspensions than ever before, according to its district athletic director.

RRPS will be sending its samples to a firm in Kansas City, Mo., which lists the NFL, NBA, the NCAA and Major League Baseball among its clients.

Some schools stay closer to home to test. Artesia sends its samples down the road to Artesia Drug and Alcohol Screening.

Some districts are testing only athletes. Some test all involved in extracurricular activities. Private Catholic schools St. Pius and St. Michael’s subject all students to testing.

Testing methods, from Logan to Ruidoso, from Artesia to St. Michael’s, from St. Pius to Hobbs, each have a fingerprint separate from the rest.

Some use urine tests; Clovis painstakingly plugs up the faucets in the bathroom with tape to make sure athletes cannot mix in water to dilute their samples.

Starting this school year, Cleveland High’s baseball team, as well as all other Storm athletic teams, will be subjected to random drug tests. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Starting this school year, Cleveland High’s baseball team, as well as all other Storm athletic teams, will be subjected to random drug tests. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Some schools test with a swab on the inside of a student’s cheek. Others use Breathalyzers or hair samples.

Some test for basic street drugs. Others have expanded to synthetic drugs, performance enhancers and painkillers.

As the Journal examined some of the districts and individual schools that conduct drug tests, here’s what is notable:

The state’s larger school systems in terms of the number of schools – most notably, Albuquerque Public Schools – haven’t committed to the idea that drug testing is the way to go.

For those that have, there is a uniformity of idealism, if not an actual assembly line, in terms of policy.

That is, adults and students alike believe the testing – and concurrent punishments for testing positive – is an effective deterrent. However, “it’s not a bulletproof cure-all,” Rio Rancho district athletic director Bruce Carver cautions. “We’re not saying it is.”

Ruidoso, for one, knows all too well.

Two years ago, Warriors AD/head football coach Kief Johnson said, the school temporarily suspended its random drug-testing program, and word apparently spread rapidly through the student body.

The district, however, never said the policy had changed, Johnson said. In January of that school year, with officials getting wind of rampant partying, they quietly resumed testing, catching students off guard.

“Our first test,” he said, “we had 30 percent test positive. It was bad.”

It was a pool of 20 students, and six tested positive.

“We knew then,” Johnson said, “that we needed to bring it back.”

Rio Rancho

Rio Rancho will use a swab test for its athletes. Ostensibly, it is a Q-Tip pressed on the inside of the cheek for a few minutes.

“It’s less invasive,” said Carver, who also helped get Hobbs’ program started when he was AD there. “Plus there’s no chance for somebody coming in and swapping urine.”

The trade-off is that the swab test is somewhat more expensive. Carver said it would cost the district about $46 per test.

Carver declined to reveal how many athletes would be tested, nor would he say how frequently the district would be pulling athletes out of class to test.

“We want it to be a deterrent,” he said. “Some kids, they’ll see a number and think they can beat the odds.”

Swab tests can detect alcohol, as well, Carver added.

Rio Rancho decided to incur extra costs to send its samples to Drug Free Sport, as noted above, in Kansas City, because “this is what they do. … They have the experience in doing this kind of drug testing.”

Rio Rancho will supply a roster of all its sports teams at both schools to Drug Free Sport, even those not currently in season, and the company will come back with a list of athletes to be tested. A group of three people will fly in from Kansas City during testing dates, Carver said.

When coaches at both Cleveland and Rio Rancho participated in a recent district-sponsored survey, asking whether they desired a drug-testing policy, there was not a single “no” vote among them, and nearly everyone voted.

“The only problem I have with it,” Cleveland girls soccer coach Greg Rusk said, “is I think all extracurricular activities should be under this umbrella.”

And that may come soon enough, perhaps as early as 2016-17. For now, it’s only the athletes.

A first positive tests sends the athlete away from the team for 20 consecutive activity days. The second violation is 45 days. If there’s a third positive, it is career-ending at RRPS.

Athletes can be tested outside their season, which is a fairly standard clause at most schools. A football player could be tested in the spring; a baseball player in the fall. Some athletes may be tested multiple times, some may never get tested.

Rio Rancho football coach David Howes said the safety and health of their athletes was the priority.

“I’ve got two kids coming up through the system who are athletes, and I’m for it as a parent, also,” he said. “It’s a deterrent to keep these kids away from any drugs.”

In Rio Rancho, as with every district, consent forms must be signed before any school can test. Depending on the school, there are penalties – some severe – for students or athletes who refuse to consent to being tested.

Students are chosen randomly by a computer, based on their ID numbers, which is how students are chosen at almost every school.

St. Pius

The Sartans’ program is believed to the longest-running in New Mexico – started in 1994 with boys and girls soccer, expanded in 1996 to all athletics and to the entire student body in the early 2000s – and it’s also possibly the most interesting of the lot.

St. Pius, for example, tests three to five students on a weekly basis, as opposed to the monthly tests with more students that are the norm elsewhere. The odds of an athlete being tested increase when in season: their student ID numbers are entered twice during their sport season, and only once when that sport concludes.

St. Pius’ test runs the gamut, athletic director Jim Cook said. Not only does the school test for the big five – marijuana, cocaine, barbiturates, opiates and methamphetamine – but it also examines for steroids and synthetic, performance-enhancing drugs such as HGH (human growth hormone).

“We are not going after kids,” Cook said. “We just don’t want them to become addicted to this stuff. If you find it early, you are able to help these kids.”

While many schools have a firm “missed-games” standard for a student who tests positive, St. Pius prefers to take each case individually and evaluate before meting out punishment, said Cook.

But, he added, usually an athlete can expect a suspension of 45-60 days, which means most, if not all, of a sports season.

“(Our policy) has changed a lot of kids for the better,” Cook said.

Members of St. Mike’s girls soccer team are subject to random tests in which hair follicles are taken. In fact, all students at the school are eligible to be tested. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Members of St. Mike’s girls soccer team are subject to random tests in which hair follicles are taken. In fact, all students at the school are eligible to be tested. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

St. Michael’s

This will be the fourth school year that the Santa Fe school has been testing. St. Michael’s is the only known school in the state that tests hair follicles, rather than the cheek swab or the urine sample.

About 10 students are tested on a random basis, Assistant Principal and boys basketball coach Ron Geyer said. A snippet of hair is obtained and sent to a California lab for processing.

“The hair test is very reliable,” Geyer said.

If a student tests positive, they have 100 days to reform. Then they are tested again.

“If there is not improvement,” Geyer said, “then they are asked to leave school (permanently). But in the years we’ve had it, to my knowledge, nobody has been asked to leave.”

Geyer said he was unsure of the cost of a test or the list of the drugs being tested for.

St. Mike’s can also test a student if there is suspicion that he or she is under the influence of a substance or alcohol, another policy that is found most everywhere.

Clovis

Clovis’ program, which originated in 2001, is like Rio Rancho’s: Testing is restricted to athletes.

“We wanted to give them a valid reason to resist peer pressure,” Clovis AD Dale Fullerton said.

The program appears to have successfully addressed the issue in a pre-emptive way. Fullerton said only half a dozen athletes or so tested positive last school year, and only two the year before that.

In all his years at Clovis, Fullerton said, he knew of only one athlete who had tested positive more than once.

Generally, he said, Clovis will drug test the same percentage of athletes in each sport. For instance, if 15 percent of football players are tested in a given month, then 15 percent of soccer players, volleyball players and cross-country runners also will get tested.

Clovis contracts with a firm in Lubbock, Texas, to create the random list of athletes to be tested, and also to monitor and conduct the test.

An individual test costs $35, Fullerton said, adding that Clovis spent roughly $7,300 from its athletic budget during the 2014-15 school year to administer the tests.

“It’s not comfortable,” Fullerton said, “but we figured out a way to do it.”

Athletes can appeal a failed test within five days. That window is similar at a majority of the schools the Journal looked at for this story.

“It’s really tapered down over the last few years,” Fullerton said, referring to the number of athletes who might be tangled up with drugs. “I’m smart enough to know that this will not stop every one of them from doing it, but hopefully, it’ll give them a way … to look at the consequences.”

The first violation of the program results in an athlete getting suspended for 20 percent of their season. Individual coaches may extend the punishment if they so choose, Fullerton said.

When that athlete returns, he or she is subjected to multiple random tests over a short period of time.

A second violation results in a 365-day suspension from athletics.

Hobbs

Hobbs’ program started in large part because of increased “referrals” through the Hobbs Police Department, among other entities.

District AD Greg Haston said the district forks out just under $10,000 per year to test, which is done eight times per school year. The money comes from the athletic budget, he said, although all students in extracurricular activities fall under the drug-testing blanket.

Hobbs tests for things such as amphetamines, meth, opiates, cocaine, PCP and THC. The policy was written to help students protect themselves and to protect other students from them.

“It has become clear to me that participation steers kids away from drugs when the vast majority of kids we have had come back as positive over the years have chosen to no longer participate,” Haston said.

Hobbs also uses the swab test.

The penalty system at Hobbs is similar to that in Clovis. A first violation means a minimum 20 percent loss of games for that season. Moreover, that student must participate in a mandatory drug and alcohol program, or drug/alcohol counseling, at the student’s expense – and will be subject to extra drug testing after being reinstated.

Carlsbad

Carlsbad’s test is one of the most wide-ranging, as it tests for many of the items already mentioned at other schools, plus Spice (a common name for synthetic marijuana) and steroids.

“Anything you can think of,” athletic director James Johns said.

Carlsbad uses a company in Artesia to perform the tests.

The tier of penalties has four levels, as opposed to three most everywhere else.

A first positive test sends an athlete away for 20 percent of their season – but that goes up to 30 percent if they refuse to go through an in-house counseling program. A second positive test is a 30-day suspension, followed by a calendar year and then an athlete’s entire career.

“If your kid really wants to make a change, we have some interventions here that can happen,” Johns said. “We don’t just bury you.”

There are, he said, social ramifications behind Carlsbad’s initiatives. If athletes have a bad sample outside of their regular sports season, they must perform 24 hours on a work detail program, split up into four six-hour sessions. And they also must complete the in-house counseling program. But they won’t miss any games when it’s time for their sport to begin.

Former Artesia Bulldog Travis Wilkinson, right, and all Artesia athletes can be randomly tested. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Former Artesia Bulldog Travis Wilkinson, right, and all Artesia athletes can be randomly tested. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Artesia

Artesia has been testing since the late 1990s. The school tests extracurricular participants at both the high school and junior high, 30 a month, athletic director Cooper Henderson said.

Artesia recently changed from a urine test to the swab. It is an 11-panel test, Henderson said, that covers most of the drugs already mentioned, plus Ecstasy, Oxycodone and Spice.

The district can also test for alcohol if a student is suspected of being under the influence.

Henderson said the swab test is more efficient than the urine test, and much harder to beat.

A first offense results in a 60-day suspension, although an athlete can get that reduced to 45 days through counseling.

A second strike is one calendar year; a third and that athlete can’t compete in athletics again.

“It’s a pretty sound system,” Henderson said. “Most of the time, with the drug tests in particular, you find that the parent was realizing there was some kind of problem and almost was kind of relieved that we got it out in the open. From that end, it’s been pretty good, and I’ve seen kids turn themselves around.”

The cost to the operational budget is $55 per test, assistant Superintendent Thad Phipps said. The district spent nearly $15,000 during the 2014-15 school year on testing.

Portales

Clovis based much of its criteria on Portales’, so the two are quite alike.

Deviations between the two include Portales testing all students in extracurricular activities. About 45 to 55 students are tested a month, AD Mark Gallegos estimated.

Like Clovis, Portales uses Lubbock Diagnostics to do the testing and analyze the results. That company also is responsible for generating the random list of students to be tested.

Portales uses a urine sample as its method, which, Gallegos said, is the most cost-effective way to monitor for drugs.

Another wrinkle that is unique to Portales is that the school also asks for a “K2” test, which tests for synthetic drugs like Spice, Gallegos said.

“It’s relatively new,” he said. From the pool of students who are tested each month, the “K2” test is applied to about only 10 percent of the samples.

With the random nature of the testing, Gallegos said, he alone knows the date ahead of time.

The cost of an individual test is $25 to $30, and the approximately $5,000 to $7,000 per year comes from the school’s operational budget.

Portales employs a Breathalyzer before prom and graduation, but only for those two events.

Ruidoso

Ruidoso budgets $10,000 a year as it tests for all the major drugs, plus Spice – which costs a little extra. But Johnson said it is worth the money given the side effects that are considered far more acute than regular marijuana.

Like Artesia, Ruidoso employs a hometown firm to conduct drug tests.

Athletes will lose 30 percent of their season for a first violation, and 50 percent for a second violation, which would probably spill over into their next sport or into the next school year. Soon Ruidoso may expand its testing from grades 9-12 to include grades 7-8, too.

Tucumcari

Since 2004, Tucumcari has been drug testing, AD Wayne Ferguson said. Any student in an extracurricular activity can be tested, and the school tests at least once every 45 days during the school year.

It is a random selection of 10 percent of that list of students (90-100 is the estimation) in athletics or activities.

The testing is done by school officials, and samples are shipped to a Santa Fe-based company for evaluation. To prevent tampering, a colored dye is added to the toilet water in the stall before a urine test, to prevent students from trying to manipulate their sample.

Any student who tampers with the test will have it immediately declared positive.

He said the school incurs no expense to test students; it is absorbed, he added, through various community outlets. The only exception to that is if a test comes back positive, he said.

Athletes who test positive must sit out 20 school days on a first positive test, and after their suspension from their team ends, they will be tested “every time there is a random selection,” Ferguson said.

The second positive tests results in a 40-day suspension, and Tucumcari offers counseling to students during their time away.

“Before we had this program,” Ferguson said, “we were kicking multiple kids off the teams for years.”

Logan

Not only has it been over a decade since Logan registered a positive test on the first try, but the school never has had an athlete test positive for drugs two times in a row.

Logan – about 25 miles northeast of Tucumcari – tests extracurricular-activity students, which includes sports.

Burns did not know what substances are tested for, deferring to the California company that processes the tests. Nor could he say how much an individual test costs.

About 10 kids a month – 10 percent of the students in extracurricular activities – are tested, Burns said.

The first-offense penalty is 10 calendar days, the second is 90 days. If there is a third strike, they are forbidden from playing a sport for the duration of their prep career.

Students have five days to appeal a positive test, which is handled internally by the school nurse at Logan before the school ships them to California, said Burns.

Funding comes from the school’s operational budget, Burns said.

Loving

Loving’s program is 7 years old. It has been at least two years since the last positive test, AD Doug Santo said.

“We feel it’s important to keep our kids on the straight and narrow,” he said.

Loving tests only athletes – and less frequently than other schools surveyed. The school tests once per season, or three times per school year. It is a urine test.

The district spends about $1,500 per school year to administer the tests, Santo said.

The first positive test results in a 45-day suspension; a second, and that athlete is done with sports for the entire school year.

“When they start to weigh the consequences, and what might happen, I think you get more and more kids saying no,” Santo said.

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