Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

National drug policy adviser calls for drug testing in schools

May 4, 2006

ROBINSONVILLE, MS – Drug testing in schools is an effective tool to identify children who need help and deter illegal drug use, one of the nation’s top drug control policy advisers told a conference of Mississippi drug court judges, staff and treatment providers on Thursday, May 4.

“We have this disease and it is being spread from child to child,” said Scott M. Burns, Deputy Director for State and Local Affairs in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Prevention is the most effective approach, Burns said.

Burns was the keynote speaker Thursday, May 4, for more than 100 members of the Mississippi Association of Drug Court Professionals at the group’s second annual training conference at Grand Casino Conference Center at Robinsonville, near Tunica.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy advises the President on national and international drug control policies and strategies. Its purpose is to establish policies, priorities and objectives for the nation’s drug control program.

The cost of drug testing is among the arguments often cited against drug testing in schools. Burns put the price in perspective: “It costs about $35 for a test. Whether or not a kid is addicted to a disease is as important as half the price of a pair of gym shoes or the current jean craze.”

Federal money is available to set up student drug testing programs, Burns said.

Burns said he favors school-wide, random drug testing, not just testing athletes or cheerleaders

or some other select group. While testing in high school is clearly appropriate, he said, the testing needs to start in junior high because children ages 11 to 13 begin experimenting with drugs at that age.

Rankin County Court Judge Tom Broome, whose duties include Youth Court, said afterwards that he’s seen favorable results from drug testing of students in Rankin County Public Schools and Pearl Public Schools.

“It’s beneficial because those children may never enter the Youth Court system. It’s our hope that some of those problems will be stopped before they become greater,” Judge Broome said. “Experimentation (with drugs) can be stopped before it becomes addiction.” Judge Broome added, “One of the benefits is the deterrence factor keeps a lot of them from venturing down that path.”

However, Judge Broome noted that there are due process issues about who can be tested and privacy rights that must be protected.

Hinds County Justice Court Judge Frank Sutton said he has some reservations about school drug testing. Judge Sutton, who serves as president of the Forrest Hill High School PTA and second vice-president of the Oak Forest Elementary School PTA in Jackson, said that he is concerned that there should be parental input before a student could be tested.

Adams County Youth Drug Court Director Marc Taylor said he has offered to do drug testing for the Natchez public school system, and he hopes that officials there will consider implementing a testing policy. His court has the testing equipment to analyze specimens.

Taylor said he agrees with Burns’ analogy of testing for drugs as one would test for a disease. Taylor said, “I like the way he put it. It’s like any other disease you would want to protect your children from by early detection.”

Fourteenth District Drug Court Probation Officer Don Lindley does the drug testing for McComb High School, North Pike High School and Southwest Mississippi Community College. School officials decide who is to be tested and do the sample collection. Lindley tests the samples on drug analysis equipment owned by the Drug Court. At $12 per test, it saves the schools money.

Tunica County Sheriff’s Department Detective Harold Harris, a former school resource officer, said he would like to see drug testing in that county’s school system. “We would love that because that would help us identify how big the problem is and who needs help,” Harris said.

Citing nationwide statistics, Burns said 19.1 million people use illegal drugs, and 75 percent of those use marijuana alone or in conjunction with some other drug. About seven million of those, or 23 percent, are under the age of 18. Of the 19.1 million, seven million meet the clinical definition of being addicted to drugs, but only two million are in treatment.

“Sometimes it takes a train wreck for somebody to realize they do have a problem,” Burns said.

“Drug court is now the silver bullet Washington is looking to, to help the seven million,” Burns said. “You and I know that drug courts work.”

Burns noted that national statistics have actually shown a decline in juvenile drug use. “It’s because of people like you pushing back,” he told the conference audience.

Burns said national drug control strategy focuses on prevention and education, treatment, and law enforcement. He said drug courts encompass all those elements.

In Mississippi, the drug court team model includes a judge, court staff, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and probation officers and treatment professionals. Representatives of all those disciplines attended the conference.

Burns challenged all those attending to “come up with new and innovative ideas of what you can do in your town and your county.”

The state has 16 drug court programs, and nine others are in planning stages.

Burns said Mississippi’s drug courts are a model for the nation because the program has a stable source of state funding and has plans to potentially develop drug courts statewide.

“That’s a success story we can take nationwide,” Burns said.

Mississippi drug courts are funded through special assessments collected as part of fines for felonies, misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

Burns cautioned the audience not to rely on federal grants to keep drug courts running. He said that federal funding is intended to set up local programs, not sustain them. Some drug court programs in other states have shut down after the federal money ran out.

In addition to having local funding, Burns said drug courts must utilize sanctions to be effective. Drug courts must keep statistical data to measure their own performance and effectiveness. And drug courts must have ongoing training, which is the conference’s purpose.

Christy Gutherz, who concluded her term as president of the Mississippi Association of Drug Court Professionals on May 4, told the audience, “Thank you so much for your efforts to move Mississippi forward.” Gutherz is Director of Community Corrections for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The leader of the national drug court movement also echoed praise for the progress Mississippi has made in the past five years. Karen Freeman-Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, who opened the conference on May 3, said, “We are encouraged by your progress and we hold you up as an example of what can happen when those who are dedicated to drug courts come together.”

“Addiction is a brain disease. It is not a moral shortcoming. We have to treat it that way,” said Freeman-Wilson, former attorney general of Indiana and a former Gary, Ind., drug court judge.

“This has got to be some of the most rewarding work on God’s earth. It is also some of the most challenging,” Freeman-Wilson said.