High Spirits? 

A couple of friends stopped by Shaina Lotu's house last year hoping to entice her to go to a party. When they tempted her with pot and booze, the eighth grader grew nervous. So she bluffed. She told her friends she'd have to skip the party because her school might give her a drug test -- though her school had no testing program in place.

The bluff worked. The friends went on without her.

Next year, she might not be bluffing.

Now a freshman who plays for Osceola High School's softball team, Lotu soon could find herself subject to random drug tests of student athletes, if school administrators have their way. They've asked the Osceola County School District to change the district's policy so the school can randomly test athletes for alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates and cannabinoids (or marijuana). It's all part of a campaign to set separate standards for those students who -- whether the kids agree or not -- are defined by school administrators as campus role models.

The five-member school board is expected to act April 4, the next scheduled meeting on the issue. At a school-board workshop last week, the board seemed to be leaning toward adopting the proposal as a pilot program for Osceola High School, postponing whether to include the district's other four high schools. "If they want to be a pilot," board member Tom Greer said, "we'll let them be a pilot."

Given her experience with her two friends last year, Lotu likes the idea. She believes it fits with Osceola's current zero-tolerance policy for drugs on its sports teams. "They're pretty strict," she says. "If you get caught, there are no second chances. If you get caught, you're gone."

Indeed, in two public forums on the matter, no one really objected at all -- not even to demand an explanation of how, exactly, being subjected to urinalysis fosters leadership qualities.

Civil libertarians see this dearth of people willing to raise privacy rights as proof the public has bought the "war on drugs" rhetoric at the expense of personal liberty. "Freedom and the concept of rights has a bad image these days, and I think that's sad," says Howard Simon, who directs the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've lost the spirit of the country, which is that government should protect our freedom. More and more, individuals and companies have to conform to what the government wants."

And anyway, who decided that a 16-year-old should be held up as an example simply because he's mastered a fastball?

"The whole notion of high-school athletes as role models is kind of spooky," says Richard C. Crepeau, a sports historian and University of Central Florida history professor who writes an online sports column. "I think of people I hung out with in high school, and I never thought of them as role models. The idea is kind of laughable." Crepeau adds that in this post-Columbine era, jock culture already has too many reasons to develop inflated egos. "High-school athletes should not be regarded as special people any more than honor students," he recently wrote. "They are all teenagers coping with the problems of adolescence and need not be given any extra baggage or any reason to exaggerate their own significance."

"That's certainly a point to think about," says Mike Frensley, Osceola High's assistant principal and a former basketball coach and athletic director. "I don't think `it is` off base. That could be another problem for us if it happens.

"But we are an athletic-minded society," he says. "Whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not, or whether you like athletics or not, our athletes tend to be leaders. They tend to be a little more involved. They tend to take a little more pride in their school.

"So," he asks, "why not start with this group?"

Shaina Lotu's fib to her friends is the kind of story that administrators want to hear as they contemplate drug testing. They believe that testing will deter drug use and become a symbol of school pride and excellence.

"To say there is not a drug problem in our culture is wrong," says George Coffey, Lotu's coach and a former Kowboy athletic director. "We do have a problem, and it is running rampant. As a school, we can take a stand. We can stress that we are above that. We succeed, and we succeed in the right way."

Similar views were shared during the school board's recent workshop. Most speakers, in fact, favored expanding drug testing to include not only student athletes, but also anyone who signs up for an after-school club, student government or marching band. "I personally feel all extracurricular activities should be tested," Samantha Tanner, a student at Osceola High, told the board. "Illegal substances should not be tolerated." (Only one among a dozen students interviewed said he wouldn't want to put up "with all the bullcrap" of drug testing; the freshman declined to give his name, but did say he belonged to Future Farmers of America and the school's fishing club.)

Among board members, only Donna Hart worried the board might be "pushing the envelope of the Constitution" if it endorsed such a plan. "If I truly feel that `drug testing` is going to help someone in getting the help they need, that's one thing," she said. "But if we're just punishing students, that's something else."

She later added: "When I was young, I wasn't willing to have my privacy invaded so easily. When you're young you're supposed to be passionate about keeping your freedom. Young people are more conservative than they used to be. If they're more conservative now, can you imagine what they will be like when they're 45?"

The fact is, drug tests are just the latest addition to a program that already imposes separate standards for Osceola High athletes.

For several years, the Kowboy football staff has kept records of its players' attendance, test scores and semester grades; the program is credited with virtually eliminating the number of ineligible players. (According to quarterback coach Doug Nichols, the varsity football team's overall grade point average is 2.94.) Additionally, players soon will be required to donate three hours of community service to qualify for their varsity letters.

The school board's decision on drug testing won't have anything to do with concern over preferential treatment or violating the Fourth Amendment, however. Instead, the decision likely will come down to money, even for a pilot program. The district has been growing by 1,500 students each year -- roughly the size of an elementary school. With the budget so tight, some buses have to run three trips, meaning some elementary students don't arrive at school until 9:30 a.m.

Like many Central Florida schools, Osceola High School is cramped. More than a dozen double-wide trailers -- temporary classrooms -- sit on cinder blocks to the west of the campus. The school gym was built to house less than half of the Kowboys' current enrollment of 2,078 students. When the school holds pep rallies, students spill over from the bleachers onto chairs set up on the gym floor.

Funding for drug tests means something else will have to be cut. "We have to examine how important this is, compared with all these other expenses, in light of the few moneys we have," says David Stone, an Osceola board member who has a daughter at Osceola High School. "Education comes first. We have very frugal athletic facilities. Athletics is a secondary thing. We recognize that."

The era of mandatory drug tests for high-school athletes began in Vernonia, Ore., a logging village of 1,700 resident 45 miles northwest of Portland. In the mid-1980s, students at Vernonia's only high school were so out of control that they'd brag in their English essays about smoking pot and popping uppers. Students stumbled into class intoxicated and red-eyed. Vernonia's librarian found marijuana growing in the library from seeds thrown into potted plants.

School administrators tried to combat the "epidemic" by performing skits and plays, running drug-sniffing dogs and hosting professional wrestlers who lectured on the ills of drug usage. Nothing worked. So the school district voted in 1987 to deploy mandatory drug testing, the first of its kind in America.

In 1989, a seventh grader who wanted to play football challenged the law in federal court. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the case wound up at the Supreme Court, which voted 6-3 in 1995 that Vernonia High School had not violated the unreasonable seizure clause found in the Fourth Amendment.

Several years later, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving an Indiana school district that had expanded drug testing to all extracurricular activities; students at Rush County's lone high school couldn't even drive to school unless they agreed to be part of a random test pool. The ACLU filed suit against the district in federal court, but lost twice, the second time at the Seventh U.S. Court of Appeals in 1997.

Yet even with the court's backing, few of the nation's 15,000 school districts have imposed drug testing, says Edwin Darden, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. Ambiguous federal laws, the cost of testing and the unease some communities have with privacy issues have kept those numbers down, he says.

Among those where drug testing is now an accepted practice is the Santa Rosa School District, in the Florida Panhandle. Bill Price, the district's director of high schools, said officials there imposed drug testing three years ago as a safety precaution to monitor the health of players engaged in two-a-day practices.

It works like this: The rosters of Santa Rosa's sports teams and cheerleading squads are faxed to an area hospital, which selects names randomly each week. The first year, no tests came back positive. Last year, five did. And there were five more this year. Once caught, an athlete is referred to counseling at the student's expense. If all goes well, the student can be back on the field in six weeks. "We try to observe confidentiality," Price says. "But kids can probably put two-and-two together."

Still, he isn't worried that the separate standards contribute to a jock hierarchy. He says the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- the annual reading, writing and math exams that prompt some schools to host pep rallies, pizza parties and theme-park visits -- has restored the emphasis on classroom excellence, rather than athletic accomplishment. "There's been a big push for academics and accountability," he says.

The idea for drug testing at Osceola High School has been kicked around since the early 1990s, when Coffey was the Kowboy athletic director. About the same time, Gateway High School, which is also in the Osceola school district, began a pilot program that tested athletes for drugs three times a year. The program, which cost $23,000 per year and was paid for by the Rotary Club, ended after four years because it was too costly and thought to be unnecessary; only three of approximately 2,600 tests turned up positive.

Drug testing resurfaced at Osceola last year because coaches have a renewed perspective of the process. "There was a change in the perception that we wanted to catch people," Coffey says. "We don't want to catch people. We want to help people."

Punishment under the proposal isn't that bad for students who test positive. A player will miss 10 percent of the season and have to attend at least three counseling sessions before returning to practice. A second offense bars a student from playing sports for a year. Student athletes also face suspension under the district's code-of-conduct policy, which prohibits using, possessing or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. (The school board expelled five students last year for violating the substance abuse clause in the code of conduct; one student has been suspended so far this year.)

It's the kind of drug policy many rank-and-file students -- those who aren't on clubs or teams -- can get behind. Janira Acevedo, an Osceola High senior, says her government class debated the merits of drug testing. Most were for it.

"I think it's a good idea," says Acevedo, a former softball player. "Coach says, 'Don't do drugs.' He doesn't know who is doing them unless they test."

Says Robert Lasitter, an Osceola High sophomore: "Most teen-agers are not into the drug thing these days. Teen-agers who are into drugs are not into sports."

What about the idea that some students could be alienated by special programs for athletes? "That happens anyway," Lasitter says. "In freshman year when you come in, it seems that either you get accepted or you don't. That happens no matter what."

James Doud is a former elementary school principal and current chairman of the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Foundations at the University of Florida. Doud says the argument against preferential treatment for athletes could be turned around as an argument to expand drug testing, grade monitoring and community service to students in all extracurricular activities, if not the entire student body. "If it is good for a select few, it ought to be good for all students," Doud says.

And Doud believes Osceola is on the right path. He cites studies that suggest a majority of high-school students who engage in extracurricular activities will one day emerge as society's leaders. With that in mind, community service is an important aspect of the program, he says. "To be a good leader, you have to see yourself as being a servant to other people," he says. "By schools having a service requirement, students are getting a real sense of how much service they can be to other people."

Parents tend to agree. Shaina Lotu's parents, Robert and Deborah Farrell, say they've already seen signs that a community-service requirement can work. They've even accompanied Shaina on a trip to hand out toys to underprivileged children, offering proof to them that separate standards will benefit, rather than single out, their child -- whether or not anyone considers her a role model.

"It keeps their heads level," Robert Farrell says. "You can't think you're above others when you do something like that. It brings you back down to earth."


More by William Dean Hinton


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