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Bemidji, Minn. — People in Cass Lake have worried for years that drug and alcohol abuse are rampant in the community. Things seemed to get worse this fall, when four people were murdered in separate incidents within a two-month period. It's believed drugs may have been a factor in some of those deaths.
The escalating violence bothered Dan Ninham, the Cass Lake-Bena High School basketball coach. Ninham wondered what he could do about it. He decided to make a suggestion: begin random drug testing for all middle and high school students involved in athletics and other extra-curricular activities. Ninham says he realizes drug testing won't cure all of the community's problems. But he says it's one small step that might help.
"I don't believe it's a hopeless situation," said Ninham. "This is just another avenue on how we can address what's going on within our own school. We've had a number of violent incidents in the last year, and if there's any connection to drugs and misuse of alcohol, if we can address it in that way that we can make it a positive, then that's what we're going to do for this."
Ninham's proposal to the school board includes an element that he says may be unprecedented in the U.S.
"I propose that our coaching staffs can be subject to random drug testing as well," Ninham said. "And our coaching staff, my two assistants and I, we'll be the first ones in line."
The high school kids that are athletes or are in activities are at the same parties as the kids that aren't. And they have the same issues.
- Joe Grafft, Forest Lake school board
Ninham's proposal is getting wide support among teachers, school and tribal officials. Cass Lake is the largest community on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Superintendent Todd Chessmore says the Leech Lake tribe has agreed to pay for and administer the program. Chessmore says many in the community believe drug testing would give students another reason to stay away from drugs.
"We believe that if we had a random drug testing policy," said Chessmore, "that they would have the ability to say 'No, I'm out for basketball, I'm out for football, I'm out for track. I like driving to school. I'm in band, music or choir. No, I'm in student council, and if I got tested I would not, may not be able to participate and I may be tested.'"
According to the National School Boards Association, only about 13 percent of school districts in the country have drug testing. Federal courts have ruled it's okay, as long as the kids being tested are engaged in a voluntary extra-curricular activity. Even so, schools that have adopted drug testing policies have typically faced legal challenges at the state level. That's because state constitutions sometimes have broader privacy protections than the federal Constitution.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota are already considering a possible legal challenge. ACLU director Chuck Samuelson says even if drug testing is legal, it's still not right. Samuelson says kids involved in sports, music and other activities are the least likely to have drug problems.
"I'm not sure they're the people we need to worry about, and that maybe this is a program that was instituted because the leadership felt we had to do something and this is what they thought of first," Samuelson said. "And that's a concern to us, because it certainly is an infringement on their rights."
Next month, the Forest Lake School District will decide whether it will begin exploring random drug testing. School board member Joe Grafft says it's naïve to think that kids involved in activities aren't using drugs.
"The high school kids that are athletes or are in activities are at the same parties as the kids that aren't, and they have the same issues," said Grafft. "When you look at statewide, 78 percent of kids tried marijuana before they get out of high school. Almost 90 percent are drinking before they get out of high school. I think that that myth is gone."
Both sides of the drug testing issue agree it's not clear whether the practice actually works. Some schools say it's been an effective deterrent. But one major study found no correlation between testing and the incidence of drug use. Cass Lake-Bena may be the first district in Minnesota to give it a try. That school's superintendent predicts testing will be in place by next fall.