COAL TOWNSHIP - A new policy mandating random drug testing will be put to a vote by the Shamokin Area School Board during a special meeting Wednesday.

The proposed policy applies to any student from seventh through 12th grade involved in extracurricular activities - athletics, band, clubs - as well as all students who drive to school.

According to school board director Charles Shuey, a first offense would result in a 30-day suspension from an activity or from parking on campus, along with a referral to district staff for counseling. Privileges would be suspended permanently on a second offense and the student referred to an outside agency for counseling.

Students and parents must sign a consent form for the testing, and failure to do so would result in loss of privileges. A positive drug test would not result in suspension or expulsion from school, Shuey said.

Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, steroids and prescription medications are among the drugs for which there will be screening. A valid prescription would negate a positive test. Results would be kept confidential and would not be disclosed to law enforcement without a court order, Shuey said. Samples are to be destroyed once a student graduates.

'Almost an epidemic'

Shuey said the proposed policy, first discussed earlier this year, is not meant as a punitive measure. The goal, he said, is to get users into counseling.

"It's getting to the point around here where it's almost an epidemic," Shuey said of drug abuse. "If you're not under a rock somewhere you see what's going on."

The school district would pay the cost for all tests, except in the event a positive test is challenged.

Rick Kashner, athletic director, said testing would be conducted by a third party. He said district coaches are on board with the proposal. Some, he said, would like to see each student tested before they're permitted to join a team.

Similar policies at North Schuylkill, Shenandoah Valley, Schuylkill Haven, Hazleton and Loyalsock were researched, Kashner said. If adopted, Shamokin Area's would take effect immediately.

Legal battles

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 issued a 5-4 ruling that upheld drug testing for all middle and high school students who participate in extracurricular activities. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down Delaware Valley's policy the following year.

The Pennsylvania high court ruled that the state constitution has greater privacy protection compared to the federal constitution. In its ruling, it more strictly defined the legalities for such policies.

"This case makes it clear that school districts seeking to implement random, suspicionless drug testing policies must be able to identify and document an actual drug problem within the school district and that the proposed policy targets the appropriate student groups or otherwise is tailored to effectively deal with the documented drug problem," according to an analysis by the Maiello Brungo and Maiello law firm in Pittsburgh.

Student athletes and drivers present a danger to themselves and others if they're using drugs or alcohol while playing a sport or driving on school grounds. If an existing problem can be documented, according to the analysis, random drug testing would be permissible. It would be harder to prove such a measure for other activities.

Delaware Valley again instituted a more tailored policy, which was subsequently challenged in 2011 and enjoined by a common pleas judge. The injunction was lifted in January when, according to The Pocono Record, the school district proved that a drug problem existed, that the students targeted were likely part of the problem, and that the policy addressed the drug problem.

'Positive climate'

An estimated 20 percent of U.S. high schools have drug testing policies. A national study by the University of Pennsylvania suggests it doesn't deter students from experimenting with drugs or alcohol. What did work in curbing smoking and marijuana use, according to the study, was "a positive school climate."

The study involved 361 between 14 and 18 years old in 2008 and 2009.

"The bad news is that a policy of drug testing has no effect on students starting to use alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana," study co-author Dan Romer, associate director of the university's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said in a January press release. "There's also no effect on escalating the use of those substances."

However, the study says "whole school health efforts that engage students, faculty and parents, and promote a sense of security and well-being have been found to reduce substance abuse." It's perhaps coincidence that Shamokin Area is instituting its health and wellness program, SASD Gets FIT, this school year. It incorporates individualized fitness programs and a focus on nutrition, and is bolstered by a $1.1 million federal grant. The funds will be spent over the next three school years, including purchases of brand new cardio and weight training equipment, as well as outdoor adventure equipment like rope climbs and zip lines.

Ron McElwee, school board president, said he hopes the proposed drug testing policy will have the desired effect: curbing drug abuse. He believes the issue is effecting students at a younger age than in the past.

"I just hope that parents and the community support us," McElwee said.