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Mingo County to drug test students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- School administrators in Mingo County say they are making a pre-emptive strike against a problem that has become all too prevalent in Southern West Virginia.

Mingo is the latest school district in the state to approve a policy that requires certain public school students to be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol.

The measure, officially approved last month, will cost the Mingo County school board about $15,000 each year and will test student-athletes, students who participate in extracurricular activities and those who drive to school.

Additionally, parents have the option to volunteer their students for the test-selection process, which detects alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.

"We're trying to become an early-intervention agency. Statistically, we see that substance abuse is prevalent in Southern West Virginia. The idea is, if we can intervene at an early age, then maybe we can stop a student from becoming a substance abuser as an adult," said Mingo County Superintendent Randy Keathley.

Only students in the county's two high schools will be tested this year, but the district plans to expand testing to seventh- and eighth-grade students next school year, according to Dreama Dempsey, Mingo County's director of student services.

The county's career and technical students who participate in a new "simulated workplace" program also will be tested, if they operate equipment. Upon graduation, those students will receive a certificate declaring them a "drug-free employee."

The results of positive tests will not be referred to police, following state law. Possible consequences for students include substance-abuse counseling, parent-principal conferences and suspension from extra-curricular activities.

Dempsey said she's heard little pushback from parents about the policy and said the area's history of drug use -- and recent news about corruption -- make it difficult for anyone to argue against it.

Just last week, former Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury pleaded guilty in federal court to depriving a drug dealer of his constitutional rights, in an attempt to protect the county's now-deceased sheriff, Eugene Crum, who has been accused of using prescription drugs illegally.

Crum -- who spearheaded a crackdown on the county's prescription pill epidemic -- was shot and killed in April.

"We did not have -- and do not have -- a major problem with drugs in our schools," Dempsey said. "This is more of a preventative approach because of the history of drugs being used in our county."

Mingo County Schools, which has been under state control since 2005 because of poor facilities and financial management, is not the first school district in the state to implement such a policy. Other school systems that drug test students include Cabell, Putnam and Logan.

During the past school year, nearly 600 eligible students were tested at random in Cabell County's middle and high schools. Of those, 11 tests came back positive for amphetamines, alcohol or marijuana, according to district data.

The tests were first implemented in 2008 and cost the Cabell County Board of Education about $20,000 each year, according to Todd Alexander, assistant superintendent for the county.

"Every once in a while, we run into a problem, but, for the most part, everyone's been very accepting," Alexander said. "The emphasis on this was to give kids another good reason to say 'No'; that if they were out on the weekend or hanging out after school and someone had drugs on them, that they could say, 'I could be tested at any point. I can't.'"

Sarah Rogers, of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while it's legal to drug test certain students using proper safeguards, it can be a tough idea to grasp, especially for minors.

"We all have a high privacy interest in our bodily fluids, and tests can be pretty invasive," she said. "Urine analysis reveals a whole host of things beyond the presence of drugs. So schools need to make sure the information being collected is very limited and not used for law enforcement purposes. It needs to be kept private.

"For example, tests can reveal certain diseases or that a student is pregnant," she said. "Generally, schools can't test their employees . . . but a school's relationship with its students is a little bit different than with adults."

But Ken Schneider, operations manager for Huntington-based Health Research Systems -- the company which has conducted most of the school drug tests in the state and will likely take on the Mingo County project -- said in this case, that's not true.

"For student tests, the only thing that is being tested for is the presence or non-presence of the metabolites being produce by banned presences," he said. "It is not a full-range test. It's a screening test that just tests for the presence of those things."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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