Woodward Academy to join metro Atlanta schools that test for drug use

Starting next fall high school students at Woodward Academy in College Park will be expected to pass more than math, English and science courses if they plan to stay in school. They’ll also be subjected to random drug tests.

The elite private school where tuition is $21,950 a year will start random drug testing students in grades nine through 12 next fall. School President Stuart Gulley said the testing will be done not because there’s hard evidence of drug abuse at the school but because of a “large number of anecdotal accounts of drug use not just at Woodward, but throughout metro Atlanta.”

Students will be randomly selected and tested. The goal is to test 40 percent of the approximately 1,000 students at the academy’s high school level by the end of the year. Teachers and administrators — including Gulley — will also be randomly tested.

The most recent annual student survey on high school drug use by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows that drug use is growing at private high schools. But a National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Study said drug use among teens has stagnated or declined for the past decade.

“There’s certainly the impulse to be aggressive about this,” said Paul Bianchi, the headmaster at The Paideia School, which instead of testing for drugs focuses on drug education. “But I think [random drug tests] create too much of an adversarial relationship in the school between adults and students.”

Woodward has no hard evidence of growing drug use by students, said Gulley, who can only remember two confirmed cases of students abusing drugs in his four years there.

Still, parents have “overwhelmingly” embraced the testing plan, he said.

Suzy Ellis is one of them. “It gives students another opportunity to say ‘no’ to the peer pressure around them these days to do drugs,” said Ellis, whose daughter is a senior at the school. “They can say ‘no’ because my school tests for drugs and my parents might find out.”

Woodward says about half a dozen parents, such as Boyd Johnson, have questioned the testing. Johnson calls it an intrusion on “personal privacy rights and the parental role.”

“It’s almost guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “I think the school needs to be teaching the importance of privacy rights instead of having random drug testing.”

Woodward officials explained the drug testing program during six forums in September that were attended by about 150 parents. They reassured parents that if a student flunks the urine test the student will not be expelled, but rather will go through a process that could include a medical exam and community service. Only after a second offense will the student be given the option to withdraw or be dismissed.

The tests, which will detect illegal and prescription drugs but not alcohol, will be administered about every two weeks. The results will be reported only to parents and the school’s administration.

An outside firm, SPEC Group Inc., will do the testing. It also has done testing and analysis for The Wesleyan School in Norcross for the past four years.

Wesleyan Athletic Director Marc Khedouri adopted the random testing policy at the school when he was dean of students. He said it has reduced drug problems at Wesleyan and not hurt enrollment.

“We’ve probably talked to five or six other schools that are in the process of considering adopting a random testing policy,” he said. “Woodward isn’t the only one. There will be others.”

Like Paideia, some other private schools — including The Lovett School and Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School — are stressing drug education over testing.

At The Lovett School, for example, seventh-graders’ parents must complete a course where they are given tools on how to prevent their child from taking drugs.

At Holy Innocents’, students are required to have drug awareness classes along with their health courses.

The schools only test a student if there’s a strong suspicion that he has used drugs.

“You’re not educating the student’s best self” when he is taking drugs, said Bianchi, Paideia’s headmaster. “… That’s part of the deal that you’re going to try hard and grow, academically and in personal ways. If you’re under the influence … not everyone is entering into a clear-minded contract.”

Gerry Weber, a civil liberties lawyer in Atlanta, said “there’s a very different set of rules for drug testing in public vs. private schools.”

“It’s more likely to be permissible in the private school setting,” he said, although private schools may be violating state laws if they don’t have parental consent before testing a student.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued public school districts in state and federal courts for violating students’ civil rights through random drug testing. Public schools now have to prove that drug use is a danger to students before testing them.

In metro Atlanta, it differs by district. DeKalb and Fulton counties don’t do any drug testing. Clayton County randomly tests bus drivers, and it tests students who are suspected of being under the influence of something or who were reported or suspected of having substance abuse issues.

Even if legally Woodward has more latitude than public schools to enforce random testing than public schools, Johnson said he still opposes the policy, making for a tough decision: Should he re-enroll his son next year?

“There’s a of momentum in the house to do so,” Johnson said. “My wife is against pulling him out of school, and so is my son. He loves Woodward.”

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