When St. Michael's High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sent out a letter in February about a proposed random drug testing program for next school year, it ignited a controversy among parents at the private school. School President Marcia Sullivan and Principal Sam Govea, the driving force behind drug testing, wrote that "while we don't believe heavy drug use is widespread on our campus, we know some of our students are experimenting with or using illegal drugs. Our position is if even one of our students is using drugs, then we have a drug problem and need to implement a safety net for our kids."
The whole idea came out of left field to Kimberly Hamerdinger, whose two kids attend St. Mike's, as the Catholic institution is known. Worse, the letter had stated administrators were "considering" drug testing, but the truth was they'd already decided to go forward with it. No simple urinalysis, St. Mike's is contracting with Psychemedics, a Massachusetts-based company that has patented a panel of drug tests using hair samples. Shaved heads? No problem. Arm hair, leg hair and pubic hair will do.
She was outraged enough to start a blog about drug testing students in order to educate parents and document the research she uncovered.
"I have a strong belief in personal liberty and responsibility and this just violates the core tenets of what I believe in," Hamerdinger told me in a phone interview. "And when I started to look into the issue, I was surprised at what I found. I had no idea there were so many adolescent experts opposed to drug testing in schools. Then I stumbled upon a lot of research, people questioning the effectiveness. It shocked me that the school would pursue a program like this in light of what is compelling information that this doesn't work, and it isn't good for kids."
Those experts include the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose Committee on Substance Abuse and Council on School Health issued a joint policy statement in 2007 vehemently opposed to any kind of random drug testing program in schools. It stated in part: "there is little evidence of the effectiveness of school-based drug testing in the scientific literature..." As a deterrent to drug use, testing is a non-starter. As a complex lab procedure, it's also difficult to carry out reliably. And hair testing, even more than your basic pee-in-the-cup drug test, is highly suspect, the policy stated: "validity has not been firmly established. Questions remain regarding how passive exposure to drugs as well as differences among races and sexes can affect hair testing."
Paul Armentano of NORML, the marijuana law reform organization, told me the research indicates that hair testing for drugs may be more sensitive on the hair of people with darker pigmentation. "There have been allegations of an inherent bias in the test," he said.
That racial/ethnic differential in hair drug testing is another red flag for Ronnie Ortiz, a Chicana whose child is a "4th generation 'Miker'" she wrote to me. The possible discriminatory nature of the hair test on St. Mike's students -- a large percentage of whom are Latino -- adds to the concerns she has about drug testing in a school where there is no obvious problem. "We are looking for a more thoughtful, attentive and personal approach to kids who are having trouble with drugs," Ortiz wrote.
Ortiz was also outraged by comments from Psychemedics salesman George Elder, the company's representative to schools, during a meeting in February about the drug testing program. "During the lunch meeting that I attended Mr. Elder also noted that drugs were coming 'across the border' which smacked of racism to me," Ortiz wrote. "We all know drugs do come up from Mexico, but there are many drugs manufactured here on a constant basis [and] America supplies plenty of its own meth etc. To specifically mention 'the border' seems like a fear and racially motivated statement that he may have used in other places."
Neither Principal Govea nor President Sullivan responded to my calls requesting comment on the controversial drug testing plan.
If St. Mike's hasn't got a drug problem, why the push by Govea? And why hair testing, which at $50 per test is about five times more expensive than the typical urine test?
Govea told the Santa Fe New Mexican that he'd started a similar random hair drug testing program at his previous job as principal at Cathedral High School, in El Paso, Texas, and gave statistics that would seem to undermine testing's usefulness. "Out of the 10 years I tested there, we had maybe five positives, and they all came back negative [the second time]," he said to the newspaper. Psychemedics was the drug testing company there, too, as it is at a number of Catholic high schools around the country, where the constitutional protections public school students still enjoy do not apply. And equally important, where the sharp budget cuts affecting public schools make them a non-starter for the expensive hair testing that Psychemedics is hawking to private schools. Oh, and there is that issue of the ineffectiveness of drug testing as a deterrent to drug use.
"Psychemedics is looking for new markets and given the down economy, it doesn't surprise me that they are targeting private schools," Armentano said. "But I'm sure this principal is being sold a bill of goods." Armentano noted that hair testing, which is better at showing more long-term drug use than very recent use, is "particularly sensitive to cocaine" but not marijuana, and Govea is likely more concerned about pot smoking than cocaine snorting.
Psychemedics has been around since 1987, but its fortunes have been tied to the trend in drug testing, especially employment testing, which has been going downward in the last decade. But drug testing with hair has some champions and the most famous might be Harry Connick, Sr., former district attorney of New Orleans and father of the singer. Connick pushed hair testing in New Orleans schools, including Catholic schools, during his tenure as DA, and when he retired in 2003, he joined Psychemedics board of directors. He is a shareholder.
The U.S. Supreme Court in its 2002 ruling in Tecumseh v. Earls expanded public schools' power to do random drug testing for students involved in any extracurricular activities, not just sports. But suspicionless, random testing of a general student population is not yet legal, even if Psychemedics and the drug testing industry would like it to be. But private schools are not subject to federal laws and policies on drug testing, and St. Mike's parents who disapprove of Govea's scheme are left with few choices beyond yanking their kids out or trying to change course. Hamerdinger and Ortiz are opting to for the second path -- for now.
"This is a small town," Hamerdinger said. "We're dealing with a Catholic institution and there is a lot of respect for 'authority' among parents. They may be more prone to listen to the principal or board member or some salesman like Dr. Elder. In some ways, these Catholic schools are ripe for the taking."