CLEVELAND, Ohio — Students at three area Catholic high schools found out this morning that they will each have to part with a bit of their hair for drug testing when they return to class in the fall.
At the same time that administrators broke the news of the mandatory drug testing to students in special assemblies at Gilmour Academy and St. Edward and St. Ignatius high schools, they also notified parents in a mass email.
The testing will affect about 340 students at Gilmour, nearly 980 students at St. Ed’s and more than 1,500 students at St. Ignatius.
The timing of the announcement – with just a few weeks remaining before summer vacation – is not accidental. School officials say they’re giving students who need it plenty of time to clean up their act.
Hair analysis can detect drug use from as long as three months ago.
The drug testing is not meant to be punitive, school officials said. Rather, it is a wellness initiative meant to connect students who are using or abusing illegal drugs and prescription medications with the appropriate assessment, counseling and treatment – and to keep other students from experimenting.
In separate interviews with The Plain Dealer, school leaders all cited the heroin epidemic in Northeast Ohio as the impetus for the testing, which will continue on a random basis throughout the school year. Discussions about mandatory drug testing have been in the works for nearly two years.
The leaders also said they hope the new initiative will give students a useful tool to wield against societal and peer pressure.
“The most powerful thing to me is that this gives a kid a legitimate chance to say no,” said Jim Kubacki, president of St. Edward in Lakewood. “It gives them an out.”
There is plenty of precedent for mandatory school-wide drug testing, but until now it hasn’t existed in Northeast Ohio.
In the fall of 2012, St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy in Toledo began testing its students and staff.
It’s one of more than 200 schools that have retained the services of Boston-based Psychemedics Corp., the company that will conduct drug testing for Gilmour, St. Ed’s and St. Ignatius. It is the world’s largest provider of hair testing for the detection of drugs.
Among Psychemedics’ other clients are schools in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska and the entire diocese of Peoria, Illinois. College clients include the University of Notre Dame’s athletic department.
Near Youngstown, the Boardman school district is also is considering mandatory drug testing for every student on a sports team or who drives to school.
“This is about deterrence — it’s not about catching anybody,” said Psychemedics’ George Elder, who instituted mandatory drug testing as a school administrator in Memphis, Tennessee before joining the company several years ago as vice president of schools and colleges.
“We got less than 1 percent [positive tests] the first year and every year after,” he said.
Mandatory, random drug testing will be new for the more than 1,500 students at St. Ignatius on Cleveland’s West Side, but drug testing itself is not, said the Rev. William Murphy, the school’s president.
“Sometimes a parent will ask us to help test [their child],” he said. “Sometimes a student’s behavior will encourage us … but this hasn’t happened very often.”
Brother Robert Lavelle, head of school at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, said he hopes the new drug testing policy will help arm students as well as educate them.
“We all know that the path to addiction is easy to get on,” he said, “but hard to get off.”
Reaction to the news has been mixed. Students interviewed by The Plain Dealer at the three schools were generally positive. Some parents were, too.
“We think it’s a positive move,” said Leigh Owen of Brecksville, whose two older children attend Gilmour. Her son will be a senior in the fall. “This will definitely be a dinner conversation tonight.”
Karen Perkowski, whose son will be a freshman at St. Ed’s in the fall, also supports the mandatory testing.
“Anything you can do to combat this issue,” she said.
Others voiced their concerns.
“Why, if there is a false positive, does the test have to be done by the same company?” one caller who identified herself as a parent, asked. “Why can’t it go to a neutral third party lab?”
Another parent of a child who will enroll at St. Ed’s in the fall said he supports the decision to conduct drug testing, but said he wonders about the timing of the announcement. Other families who are against it, but who already have committed to sending their sons to the school, are now in a bind, he said.