Santa Barbara News Press

Carpinteria Leads the Way for High School Drug Tests

Students who flunk drug test not arrested

As school officials in Santa Barbara consider enacting a drug test policy for students, they need look no farther than Carpinteria to see how fractious — and possibly politically risky — the issue can be.

In January of 2004, the school board voted 4-1 to initiate the policy at Carpinteria High School for athletes and cheerleaders. In November, school board President Michael Damron — a proponent of testing — was unseated in a landslide by political newcomer Amrita Salm, a vocal opponent of the policy during the campaign. Nearly a year after the upset, the divide is at 3-2 in favor of testing, and the matter is expected to soon come back to the board.

In Santa Barbara, the issue has emerged amid high-pitched student chatter over a separate but related matter: Breathalyzers at the door for tonight’s homecoming dances at Santa Barbara and Dos Pueblos high schools. If students are caught under the influence, they will be suspended and forced to attend several sessions with a counselor and their parents. But they will not be arrested, Santa Barbara High School Principal Paul Turnbull said.

Like the proposed drug-testing policy, Breathalyzer use is a practice started in Carpinteria for school dances. But the Breathalyzer need not be approved by the school board, because it is not considered invasive.

Officials in Santa Barbara are treading carefully with the drug-testing initiative.

Already, they have enlisted the aid of a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union for guidance. Her advice, according to Dos Pueblos Principal Quentin Panek: Keep it voluntary, and do not limit testing to any particular group, such as athletes. The spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

It is this version that Mr. Panek prefers.

“In my experience, in many, many years in education, athletes are probably less likely than your average students (to use illegal drugs.)”

But Nan Verkaik, the athletic director at Santa Barbara High School, would like to see the testing specific to athletes, as they are in Carpinteria.

“If 1,000 kids (who are in sports) are not using, that’s going to change a lot of things that go on at the whole school,” she said.

Ms. Verkaik and other athletic directors in the district have long lobbied the city’s top education officials to consider a drug testing policy for athletes. But the powers that be didn’t take notice until the summer, when students in Ms. Verkaik’s TV production class created a video promoting the idea.

“The downtown people get a lot of requests,” she said of the school board and administration. “But when kids ask for help, an educator doesn’t turn away.”

One of the main points of the video is that a drug test provides students another avenue to say no, and encourages their friends to follow suit.

Indeed, several students at Santa Barbara High School expressed support for drug testing Friday afternoon.

“If you’re going to play a sport, why do drugs?” said Adam Medina, who plays defensive tackle on the varsity football team. “It just slows you down. I’ve gotten some offers, but I’m already slowed down enough.”

Said cheerleader Ashley Vizzolini, “If they catch them, bench ’em.”

Others worry about equity. “I think drug testing is fine, if you’re not singling out the athletes,” said Justin Fareed, a running back for the team.

At Carpinteria High, about five students — all athletes or cheerleaders — are randomly selected for testing each week. During physical education or a free period, the students come to the office, where they are asked to urinate in a cup.

And if they can’t perform, they don’t leave until they can,

said Carpinteria High Assistant Principal Gerardo Cornejo. “I’ll go and get a bottle of water,” he said.

The test looks for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, amphetamines and opiates. It costs the district about $1,000 a year, or $6 a student. (If they were to test for steroids, the cost would skyrocket.) If students are caught, they are suspended from the team for 14 days and must see a counselor. They are not suspended from school or thrust into the criminal justice system.

Mr. Cornejo said it is something students should get used to — especially athletes.

“If you work for a lot of companies you get tested . . . if you work for the government you get tested,” he said. “This is just a simple reflection of society.”

Carpinteria trustee John Franklin said he supports the policy because athletics are a privilege, not a right.

“(Similarly), if they don’t keep a certain grade standard, they can’t participate,” he said. “They are models of the school, and are representing the school in the community.”

The policy is also endorsed by Carpinteria’s new superintendent, Paul Cordeiro.

Carpinteria district officials refused to divulge how many students have been caught.

“When all the schools start doing testing, we’ll be less hesitant (to reveal numbers),” Mr. Cordeiro said. “But it puts our high school in an unfair bad light.”

The Santa Barbara school board has yet to address the issue. On Friday, the News-Press reached just one board member, Laura Malakoff. She declined to comment.