Creighton Prep will begin mandatory, random drug and alcohol testing for all students at the start of the 2014-15 school year, officials announced Wednesday.
The testing will involve collecting hair — about 60 strands — from the heads of selected students and testing it for evidence of significant drinking and a variety of drugs. The testing can detect drug and alcohol use dating as far back as 90 days.
Prep has hired Psychemedics, an Acton, Mass.-based firm, to conduct the testing. Plans call for testing most students — 80 percent or more — over the course of a school year.
The testing program is the most extensive among metro-area schools. Public schools cannot require drug tests, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
If a Prep student tests positive once, results will be shared with a counselor rather than administrators. The student and parents or guardian would be called in to talk about how to help, with no disciplinary consequences. The student would be tested again in 90 days.
Michael Giambelluca, Prep’s president, said the initiative is part of the school’s developing health and wellness program, which already includes drug and alcohol education and concussion testing and, for the past handful of years, testing for steroids among athletes.
It’s also part of the Catholic boys school’s commitment to two tenets of Jesuit philosophy: caring for the whole person and seeking to do more.
“This is going to make us a stronger school,” Giambelluca said. “Not for us, for our students.”
Giambelluca said the school has no indication that the number of Prep students who use alcohol or drugs is any greater or less than at any other school in the area. Officials expect “the large majority” of students to test negative.
“If even one of our students has a (drug and alcohol) problem,” Giambelluca said, “we want to address it.”
School officials announced the program to faculty and students Wednesday at separate assemblies before the school day began. Emails and letters were sent to parents.
Giambelluca said the testing will be part of a three-pronged approach: educating students about the risks of alcohol and drug use; providing an early intervention that won’t include discipline initially; and preventing use by giving students an easier way to say no.
The decision to test comes after a decade of participation in the Nebraska Risk and Protective Factor Student Survey, as well as conversations with parents, students, faculty and staff and with other Catholic and Jesuit high schools.
The survey results, Giambelluca said, confirm that young people face a culture of permissiveness as well as misinformation about drugs and alcohol and their risks.
Specifically, he said, there’s a perception among young people that drug use is more common than it really is. If students think use is high, he said, they’re more likely to do it themselves.
While the scope of testing appears to put Prep well ahead of other metropolitan area schools, the school joins at least a handful of other Catholic and Jesuit schools in requiring it.
Prep has consulted with a number of them, particularly Rockhurst High School. The Jesuit boys school in Kansas City, Mo., launched a similar effort last fall.
In addition to binge drinking, the test will look for marijuana, PCPs, amphetamines, cocaine and opiates. It won’t test for K-2 or other synthetic marijuana products. K-2 was recently blamed for the death of a Greenwood, Neb., teen.
George B. Elder, Psychemedics’ vice president for schools and colleges, said the company would like to add K-2 to its lineup. But first it would need to pinpoint core chemicals. Hundreds of combinations are used to make synthetic marijuana.
But the testing does cover 90 percent of mainstay drugs.
The alcohol test was launched in June. It won’t pick up a beer after a hunting outing or a glass of wine at a wedding. It will pick up repeat users who consume about seven drinks or more a month over a three-month period.
“It’s really mostly looking for a kid who’s getting into trouble,” said Elder, a former school administrator who used the testing at a school he headed in Alabama.
The company works with several hundred schools nationwide, including fraternities, colleges and public schools in other states.
Public schools, however, are limited by U.S. Supreme Court rulings to using the testing for students in extracurricular activities. While attending public school is a right, participating in such activities is a privilege.
Greg Harkness, Rockhurst’s principal, said his school’s decision to test started with conversations with parents.
“We decided the deterrent effect of the random testing was one more tool in our students’ toolbox when trying to make better choices as an adolescent,” he said.
And while results of studies about whether drug testing acts as a deterrent have been mixed, he said, the research is clear that the longer a student waits to experiment with drugs and alcohol, the less likely he was to struggle with it as an adult.
Rockhurst plans to test 600 to 800 students each school year. So far, it has tested about 340 students this year. It’s gotten seven positive results, one of which was cleared as a drug the student was prescribed by a doctor. No students have cited testing as a reason for leaving the school.
The school community has benefitted most, he said, from bringing conversations about drugs and alcohol out in the open.
“It all boils down to we’re doing this because we care about you,” he said.
John Naatz, in his 22nd year as Prep’s principal, said the Omaha school deliberately announced the testing before its annual scholarship and admissions testing for eight-graders, which is set for this weekend.
Naatz said the midyear announcement also gives existing students and parents time to decide whether they can get on board with the testing program.
“I would be very surprised that parents would look at this as a negative,” he said.
The school will pay for the initial test, about $60 a student.
If the first test is positive, families would be required to pay for the second test 90 days later.
A second positive test result will include referral to the school’s dean of students for discipline. The student also would be required to complete a chemical dependency screening, follow any recommendations and be tested again in 90 days.
A third positive test would result in dismissal.