Is testing Juneau’s student athletes for drugs and alcohol effective?

Camden Erickson and Nick Tipton spar during a Thunder Mountain High School wrestling practice on December 12, 2018 (Photo by Annie Bartholemew/KTOO)

The Juneau School District has been randomly drug testing student athletes since 2009. But among administrators, students, parents and coaches, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about its purpose or its effectiveness.

Nine years later, apart from anecdotal reports, there is little hard evidence to show that it’s succeeded in keeping kids off of drugs and alcohol.

The policy originated from a grassroots effort to address growing drug use among high school students. Since then, the district has spent anywhere from $11,000 to $46,000 a year on drug tests. Even in the face of budget cuts in 2013, the district opted to keep the policy in place.

“The feedback from the administrators at the high schools at the time was that, even if they had to figure out a way to administer this process without additional staff, they would figure it out because they felt like it was so important,” said Kristin Bartlett, the district’s chief of staff.

Here’s how it works: A kid will get pulled out of class to take a urine test, and then a technician analyzes it immediately. They test for a range of substances, including cocaine, marijuana, opiates, oxycontin, tobacco and alcohol. Depending on budget constraints, as much as 15 percent of each sports roster is randomly tested, once a week and only while in season.

If the test is positive, parents are notified and the student is asked to produce another sample, which is sent out to a lab for confirmation. Every week the testing service sends the school a report of positive results. The consequences for a confirmed positive test include suspension from sports as well as an online course about the effects of substance abuse. Suspensions from sports range from 10 days to a full year depending on how many times the kid has been caught with a positive test.

(PDF courtesy of Juneau-Douglas High School Site Council)

Jake Jacoby, Thunder Mountain High School’s activities director, described the number of positive tests he’s seen in fours years on the job as steady and low.

“Not very many,” Jacoby said during an interview, adding, “I would say at least half of the maybe eight to ten positive tests we’ve had in the last four years have been tobacco-related.”

But beyond handling these cases one by one as they come up, the district doesn’t seem to be tracking the program’s effectiveness — that is, has mandatory testing actually reduced the number of kids using drugs and alcohol over the years?

“It would be hard for us to measure that with some kind of statistical validity of any sort,” said Juneau-Douglas High School principal Paula Casperson.

To try to compile that kind of data for Thunder Mountain athletes, Jacoby said he’d have to go back through years of hard-copy weekly reports.

“It’s not going to happen anytime soon,” Jacoby added.

Higher-ups have the same answer. Interim Superintendent Bridget Weiss said in an email that “anecdotally we have few positive [test results],” but that the district does not keep yearly records of the number of positive tests. The consensus there is that the district doesn’t have the time or capacity to keep track of year-over-year testing results.

So how do they know it’s working? Weiss says that the program is meant to give kids a reason to say “no,” rather than catch them in the act. That’s something Casperson as well as Rhonda Hickok, assistant principal at Thunder Mountain, echoed.

“It kind of gave kids an out, if they didn’t have the courage before,” Hickok said in an interview. “We know peer pressure is pretty high, and it could be a challenge for some kids to not be able to say no. Well now they had an out that they could say, ‘No, I participate in this program and I could be drug tested, so I can’t do this.’”

On top of that, Hickok said that the district has taken strides to train teachers to identify risk behaviors, including a two-day drug impairment training program for administrators alongside the Juneau Police Department. The school also holds educational sessions with athletes and their parents about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.

Another common refrain from administrators is that the drug policy opened the door to a larger community discussion about youth substance abuse.

“It really elevated the conversation, and people opened up about what the problems were, and people shared more information about how to get help and how to prevent it in the first place,” Bartlett said. “That, I think, contributed a lot to the reduction in the incidences that we were seeing.”

Even without hard numbers, Activities Director Jacoby said he’s confident reports of athlete drug use are just less prevalent. “That sort of conversation I don’t hear anymore,” he said. “I think that it’s a pretty serious deterrent to know that, that you’re in a pool of people that could be tested on a weekly basis.”

But talking to kids and parents, you might hear a different story.

At a Thunder Mountain wrestling practice last month, some players doubted the effectiveness of testing, and others weren’t even sure it’s happening. Wrestling sophomore Nate Houston and senior Derek Mason debated the latter point in the hallway outside the auxiliary gym.

“I haven’t heard of anybody on the team getting tested,” Mason said.

“We got drug-tested for football. I just didn’t get drug-tested,” Houston said. “Only just like a few kids got drug-tested.”

“Jacoby at the front office said that no one got drug-tested for football,” Mason countered.

The boys said their wrestling season was about halfway over, but neither of them had been tested yet. Over the phone, Jacoby confirmed that the school’s wrestlers are being tested, but because of the small size of the team, it’s at most one or two kids per week.

Most kids said they wouldn’t change the current system, but they also agree that testing doesn’t prevent kids who want to use drugs from using them. “It just depends on the kid, you know?” said Camden Erickson, a senior at Thunder Mountain. “I think if a kid really wants to do drugs, it’s not going to matter if he’s in season or not.”

The small sample size might actually be part of why some athletes feel comfortable risking it. “I knew some kids that got drug-tested five or six times in a season,” said Trevor Jones, a former Thunder Mountain swimmer who graduated in 2015. “And then like, my last two years in high school, I didn’t get drug-tested at all.”

Beyond the testing, some student athletes say that even the educational part of the district’s drug policy isn’t particularly effective.

“A lot of students, it just goes over their heads,” Sunny Tveten, a senior on the Juneau-Douglas swim team said over the phone, adding, “They don’t pay much mind to it because many of the students who have done it, they know how to work their way out of getting caught.”

How do they work their way around it? Parents, students — and even Jacoby — report that some kids cheat. “They’ll have other people like, pee for them or whatever,” Erickson said. “I mean, it’s hard to cheat, but it happens.”

It’s not clear just how often kids try to subvert the system, but their attitude does throw into question the value of the testing budget. To be clear, even at its highest in 2010, $46,457.50 for the year, the testing budget is a drop in the bucket in a district budget that has grown from around $65 million to over $80 million in the last nine years. That’s one explanation for the program continuing without thorough understanding about what it’s doing.

Merry Ellefson, a Juneau-Douglas cross country coach and parent of a Juneau-Douglas student, said over the phone that she’s unclear on the effectiveness of the policy, but “the money that we’re putting into it is so small right now that perhaps it’s doing what it needs to do.” She noted, however, “We also know that there’s a lot of the young people that have figured out the system, and we know there’s kids in our schools walking around with clean pee … in case they get called out.”

She laughed, adding, “I mean, they’ve figured it out.”

For Ellefson, the bigger issue is making sure kids have a positive, supportive environment in which to get help.

“I’m feeling like, if I have kids on my team caught smoking, I’d rather have them smoking and running than not coming to practice,” Ellefson said. “I’d rather have them with this group of young people that are active and making good choices and traveling with me, than spending more time on their own and perhaps unsupervised.”

At the same time, parents like Ellefson say it’s unreasonable to expect the district to be solely responsible for solving the issue of substance abuse.

“And at the same point, it’s where we are at,” Ellefson added. “We’re all participating … and $11,000 might be an important little wedge in trying to keep our community healthy.”

National studies of high school drug testing programs haven’t shown a strong correlation — if any — between testing and lowered substance abuse, arguing that improvements in school environment may be a more effective use of resources to reduce substance abuse. A 2015 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced “widespread implementation” of testing programs due to a “lack of solid evidence for their effectiveness.”

Drug testing is just one part of Juneau School District’s strategy to address the issue, along with education and outreach resources. But seemingly satisfied with anecdotal evidence, it appears unlikely that administrators will be changing the program anytime soon.