Grand County Board of Education chair Jim Webster and board member Beth Joseph listen to comments about a proposed drug testing policy for high school students involved with extracurricular activities. The board voted unanimously on Wednesday, June 10, to table the proposal, pending further input from the community and school administrators. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

The Grand County Board of Education voted unanimously last week to table a proposed random drug testing policy for high school students involved in extracurricular activities.

Board member Beth Joseph’s motion to postpone any action on the policy also asks high school administrators to create a committee of parents, board members, professionals and staff that will develop a comprehensive plan for the prevention and treatment of student substance use.

“Substance use and abuse is a community problem, and I feel like the community needs to take responsibility for the solution, as well,” she said during the education board’s June 10 meeting.

Joseph asked that the policy include measures that would pertain to all Grand County High School students, and said that random testing for those participating in extracurricular activities could be part of an overall policy aimed at prevention.

The motion gives the administration six months to develop the plan.

Board chair Jim Webster opened the meeting for discussion by saying that the topic had stimulated a lot of conversation in the community, particularly on social media, and that the board had received several written comments from citizens who expressed their thoughts and concerns – both for and against the proposed policy.

Webster said the board had several options before it, including the possibility of approving the policy, not approving it or tabling it for further study. However, he said he personally felt that a down vote would “send the wrong message to the students and to the community.”

“We need to continue to look at this problem that we know we have and study it,” he said.

High school administrators proposed the random drug testing policy in response to data from the Student Health and Risk Prevention survey which show that drug and alcohol use among Grand County High School students is significantly higher than it is in the rest of the state.

Proponents of the policy say it would serve as a deterrent, and that it would help the school identify students who need help. They say it also gives students an excuse to say no to offers of drugs or alcohol.

Grand County Sheriff Steve White said at the meeting that he was “very excited” about the policy.

“We want to promote a healthy extracurricular environment,” White said. “This could help some kids who may fall through the cracks.”

Opponents question the effectiveness of drug testing and say that at-risk students who often benefit the most from involvement in school activities and sports may drop out rather than risk being tested.

Antje Rath, a clinical mental health counselor at Moab Regional Hospital, told the Moab Sun News that “it’s wonderful that this has become a topic of discussion.” But she questioned the validity of a stand-alone, random drug testing policy.

“It doesn’t reach the kids who are most at risk,” she said. “In my experience, it’s not the kids participating in debate or playing sports that have the highest risk factor.”

Rath applauded the board’s decision to require a more comprehensive policy that had community involvement, and included greater efforts toward prevention and treatment.

Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren told the Moab Sun News that he wasn’t surprised by the board’s decision.

“They didn’t feel comfortable saying yes based on the community input,” he said.

Hren said that at the same time, he felt that the board wanted to support the administration in its efforts to deal with substance use, and that charging the administration to come up with a more comprehensive plan that involved the community was a positive thing.

“It really is a community issue,” Hren said. “The high school cannot fix the drug and alcohol issues that have (their) roots in generational acceptance in our community.”

Hren said that he hoped that the final comprehensive policy would still include a provision for drug testing because it provided quantifiable evidence, but he emphasized that the ultimate goal is for prevention and treatment.

“My feeling is that there is a fraction who have trepidation about this policy because they feel like testing is not prevention,” he said. “But the point of the process is to get them to mental health services.”

Assistant Principal Cari Caylor said that as the primary disciplinarian, she had to follow a deliberate process of procedural justice when following up on claims of substance abuse, and that she needed evidence to move forward.

Caylor cited a perceived “culture of tolerance” of substance abuse among athletes, even though they sign a code of conduct to abstain from use, or even being present where use is occurring.

“The intent behind the random testing of athletes was to implement some first steps in being able to hold them more accountable for what they already agreed to,” Caylor said.

Caylor said that regardless of the board’s vote, she was glad to hear that “this was going to be an ongoing conversation.”

“I hope that both opponents and supporters of the new policy will take the time to come forward, share their message, and assist in formulating a plan to move forward in an appropriate direction,” she said.

Webster said the board’s decision was not an attempt to wish the drug testing policy away.

He said that though it may well be a solution to the problem, the policy was tabled to allow time for a more thoughtful approach that included input from the community.

“People tell me there are other ideas, but I’m waiting to hear what they really are in concrete terms,” he said.

Unanimous vote gives school administrators six months to develop plan

Substance use and abuse is a community problem, and I feel like the community needs to take responsibility for the solution as well.