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Students take a different test: Officials say random drug screens get results in Hall

POSTED: May 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
In the professional ranks, athletes often are put on pedestals. But in Hall County, when it comes to dealing with drugs and alcohol, athletes are put under a microscope.

Currently, only student athletes in Hall County schools are subjected to mandatory, random drug tests, and school officials say it seems to be working.

In 2004, Flowery Branch High School Principal Mark Coleman asked Gordon Higgins, Hall County’s director of athletics, if school officials could test their athletes for drugs. After discussing the idea with then-superintendent Dennis Fordham and holding two public hearings on the topic, the board approved the policy.

When testing started later that year, there were eight positive tests within the county. This school year, there have only been two, including multiple testing sessions that had no positive results.

"The students are getting the message," Higgins said. "The idea of this program is to prevent and to intervene."

The tests, given on campus by Northeast Georgia Toxicology, are administered to 200 student athletes a year, with an average of 10 athletes tested twice monthly.

"If it saves one student, then it’s effective," said Flowery Branch athletic director Shannon Benton.

Urine samples from athletes are tested for substances such as amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, opiates and propoxyphene (pain killers), but not for performance-
enhancing drugs like steroids.

"The main reason we don’t test for steroids is cost," Higgins said. "It’s not that we’re not interested in
performance-enhancing drugs, we are, but steroid tests cost around $200 per panel. Once it becomes cost effective, we will absolutely do it."

For now, it’s up to the coaches to determine if an athlete is using steroids.

"We keep an eye out for steroid use," Benton said. "I know the signs, and the coaches know the signs."

Benton said there have been no issues with athletes using performance-enhancing substances at his school.

The school system’s substance abuse policy was enacted a few weeks ago when at least four Flowery Branch athletes were arrested for underage drinking at an off-campus party.

Benton called the incident a "nonissue." But since the school system policy also includes an athlete caught in substance abuse outside of school, the athletes involved were suspended from 10 percent of their remaining games — the penalty for a first offense.

"Our intent is to intervene whenever possible when substance use is confirmed," Higgins said. "Our intent wasn’t to embarrass anybody; our intent is prevention."

So far, not only has the number of positive results decreased, but there has been only one double positive test in four years. According to the policy, if a student athlete fails a random test for a second time, then he or she will be suspended immediately for a minimum of four weeks. Along with participating in a drug treatment program, the athlete must apply for reinstatement, with the principal, head coach and athletic director deciding on its approval.

On the third offense, the athlete is suspended for one calendar year from the date of the positive result.

Higgins credits the program’s success rate to insistence on privacy and confidentiality.

According to Higgins, if a student tests positive, the teen’s parents are called by a physician from Northeast Georgia Toxicology, and the result is discussed. If there is an excuse for the positive result, like the student has a prescription, then the student can continue playing in games and no one, not even the coach, knows that the positive result happened.

"I have not had one phone call from one parent saying the program is unfair," Higgins said. "The way that it’s been handled, by professionals, makes parents aware that this program is being done right."

Gainesville High School also is beginning to look at starting random drug screening for students who participate in athletics or extracurricular activities or drive to school. The Hall County Board of Education is considering expanding its mandatory, random drug testing to students who are issued parking permits.

"Our main reason that those students were the logical next step is it’s a safety issue," Higgins said. "This program has the potential to expand to all extracurricular activities."

As of today, Hall County is already a step ahead of other school systems in Georgia. According to Higgins, Hall County is the only system with multiple high schools in the state administering random drug tests. Rabun County is the only other school system testing for drugs to Higgins’ knowledge.


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