Random tests could be Firelands Schools’ reaction to county drug epidemic

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com

Random drug testing could be used at the Firelands Schools starting this fall.

“Our region is battling a drug epidemic and our community is not immune,” said superintendent Mike Von Gunten.

The statement headlines a new webpage created by the local school system to tackle drug, alcohol, and mental health issues.

The page prominently links to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showing Ohio now ranks second in the nation — trailing only California — in overdose deaths.

With that in mind, the board of education is expected to soon discuss a random drug testing policy for all Firelands High School students involved in extracurricular activities, as well as those who drive to school.

“The purpose of this policy is not intended to be punitive, but rather to identify an issue early and to assist the student and their family in all possible way,” an announcement on the school website says.

Von Gunten said in a phone interview that the goal isn’t to catch kids in the act, but to “give them a good excuse to say no” if offered drugs.

“What we’re aware of is the drug issue in our region. Obviously a school is a microcosm of society, and we want to do everything possible to make sure our kids are safe,” he said. “We feel it’s really important to do all we can to help kids make healthy, positive choices.”

To be clear, the school board hasn’t publicly discussed drug testing yet.

However, Von Gunten feels confident it will be brought to the table and has started doing research. Random drug tests would cost about $15 each and he foresees spending $5,000 to $10,000 per year.

Great Lakes Biomedical is the likely candidate to provide the tests, he said. It is the same company that provides kits for the Amherst and Vermilion schools.

In Lorain County, Avon, Elyria Catholic, Keystone, and Sheffield-Sheffield Lake also test students for drug use.

Von Gunten has examined their policies as well as those used by Belleview in Huron County and North Olmsted in Cuyahoga County.

He wants to take a non-punitive approach, meaning a first offense would probably result in a referral for treatment rather than a suspension.

And while students who drive to school would be subject to tests — Von Gunten said driving to school is a privilege, not a right — the same scrutiny would not extend to teachers and other staff who drive to work. The exception, he said, are bus drivers, who do submit to random screenings.

Community forums will be scheduled to gather feedback from local residents on their thoughts regarding student drug tests and how to best deal with the county’s drug problem. Dates have not yet been set.

A survey has also been posted on the new webpage, which can be accessed at www.firelandsschools.org under the “Board of Education” tab.

The Amherst Schools enacted a similar drug testing policy two years ago, also with athletes, band, and club members as well as student drivers.

“The feedback has been very, very positive from students, from staff, from parents. Obviously there were some questions that came up when the policy was first adopted. Since then, the process has gone very smoothly,” said Amherst superintendent Steven Sayers.

In the past two years, 550 Steele High School students have been tested at $15 each, which amounts to a little more than $4,000 per year.

Three students have tested positive for illegal drugs.

They were not removed from school but there were consequences when it came to athletics and other programs, Sayers said. They were able to get assessments, counseling, and other help to get back on track.

The goal isn’t to “catch” kids and punish them, he said: “It gives our students one more reason to say no,” Sayers said, echoing Von Gunten’s words. “Based on everything we’ve heard, the data, and looking at it from different angles, we feel good.”

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk