Between Privacy and Playing Clean : Some schools have voluntary drug-testing in their athletic programs, but costs and civil rights are at issue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1985 Edison High started a revolutionary and somewhat controversial voluntary drug-testing program for its athletes. Ten years later, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a ruling in an Oregon case that reinforced Edison's right to drug-test students on a voluntary and random basis.

Since 1985, other Orange County schools, such as Laguna Hills, Brea Olinda and El Toro, have picked up the ball from Edison and run with their own voluntary and random drug-testing programs. Meanwhile, Edison's program has gone full-circle in 10 years--from cutting edge to being cut out. A lack of funding and interest doomed Edison's program, which was presented a national award for its impact on teen-agers.

While Edison looks to see if its dormant program is worth reviving, some schools, including Corona del Mar and Mater Dei, are discussing whether they want to start drug-testing programs. Even the financially strapped Irvine Unified School District is talking about the possibility of testing its student-athletes for drugs. Other Southland schools that run successful drug-testing programs include Fontana and Murrieta Valley.

The new-found interest in drug-testing high school students doesn't appear to be in response to any trend, any specific incident or even to the recent Supreme Court ruling. (The ruling said students--including non-athletes--can be forced to undergo random urine tests to detect illegal drugs.) Instead, every administrator and coach who was interviewed said the biggest selling point of drug testing is determent, not punitive, which, in fact, is the message of national Red Ribbon Week, which began Monday.

It is also the message the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals gave its member schools in a September legal memorandum. The memo suggested that drug-testing programs are important so long as they are directed at athletes and their goal is "reducing safety risks in competition." The memo also said results of the tests should be used "only to meet the goals of the program and not for other disciplinary or criminal penalties."

While it existed, Edison's program was consistent with that message.

"The best thing about the program was that it gave the kids a way to say no to someone at a party or some other function," Edison football Coach Dave White said. "The peer pressure in high school is always there. But now, a kid can say, 'No, I can't. I might be tested tomorrow.' There's a lot of kids who don't want to do these drugs, but they feel like they have to because so many of their friends are."

Brea Olinda, El Toro and Laguna Hills run essentially the same kind of program that Edison introduced. Athletes--and in Brea Olinda's case, all students participating in extracurricular activities--are given the option to be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol before the start of each sports season. Those who choose to participate can be randomly tested each week.

Only the student, parent and doctor are notified if a student tests positive. None of the four schools are currently testing for steroids, but they are testing for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and derivatives of cocaine.

"We were interested in nipping the thing in the bud and notifying parents before the problem got worse," said Bill Workman, who helped institute the program at Edison before leaving a year later to coach football at Orange Coast College.

"We start these programs so we can help our kids say no to drugs, not so we can catch kids or narc on kids," said Corona del Mar Principal Don Martin, whose school is holding an Oct. 25 meeting on campus to determine how much community support there is for drug-testing.

Workman said he didn't have much support when he and Dr. Robert Belanger instituted Edison's program.

"It was pretty bold," Workman said. "We got phone calls from about every organization you can think of. The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], all of them. But we worked our way through with the help of lawyers and doctors."

Workman said he and Belanger began talking about drug testing at a pizza parlor after an Edison football game.

"We were talking about some players who had graduated, and some things were coming out about kids who were alcohol and drug users at Edison," Workman said. "I looked back and said, 'What are we doing?' You looked back and remembered things that happened in games on Friday night, and suddenly a lot of it made sense.

"We figured if people didn't like it, that's OK. We figured we'd lose some players, but in the long run we thought we'd win more games because of it."

That first year Workman got 99 of his 100 players to participate in the program. Edison won a Southern Section championship that year (1985) and the team's motto was "mean, green and clean." Many of the players had their negative drug test slips taped to their locker as a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Workman said the only player who refused to be tested was the son of a lawyer. In the spring, the player was picked up for possession of drugs.

"It was poetic justice," Workman said.

But in the last two years, no one has been tested at Edison High. Athletic Director Bruce Belcher said the program's funding dried up and the company that administered the tests folded. But Belanger, who has been the Edison football team's doctor for 19 years and almost single-handedly kept the program alive for nine years, said it was more than that.

"I think the money's still there in an account somewhere," said Belanger, a semi-retired family practice physician in Huntington Beach. "The school has to come to me and say, 'Will you do this?' It may be that 10 years of this was enough for them.

"It's frustrating that we're the ones that put the thing together and now we're watching other schools doing our thing better than we did. This hurts me more than just a little bit."

Belcher said the program is not entirely dead at Edison.

"It is our intention to continue it," he said. "We're trying to get more funding, but it's tough when you have to do it on your own."

In the last couple years of the program, Belanger said the drug tests were costing only about $10 each and the school was administering about 50 tests a year. El Toro, Laguna Hills and Brea Olinda's programs are subsidized by the local hospitals or health clinics that administer the tests.

"We've always had the support from the hospitals, but I think we'd somehow come up with the money if we didn't get that support," said Laguna Hills vice principal Kary Bemoll, whose school has about 50% participation in its program.

Bemoll boasts that Laguna Hills has never had a student test positive for drugs or alcohol in the program's five years; one student did test positive because of an allergy medication. "Maybe it's working," she said. "It's amazing we haven't had one positive test."

Not every school that wants drug testing is able to secure grants or get donations from wealthy parents. Some programs can cost as much as $6,000 a year. Irvine High Athletic Director Rick Curtis said that was too much money for his district to afford.

"We had some money set aside for it a couple years ago, but we had some major cutbacks and that was one of things that was cut," said Curtis, who added that the issue of drug testing is far from dead.

"I plan to look into it and see if we can't get it funded by an outside source," he said. "I'm all for it. I know drugs and alcohol are a problem in our society and this gives a kid an out."

But Curtis, White and many others don't think steroids are a problem anymore. Edison and Laguna Hills used to test for steroids, but both schools said the $75 fee simply didn't meet the demand.

"I don't see steroids as the problem it was five years ago," White said. "Whether it's Lyle Alzado [a former NFL lineman who died from steroid use], all the side effects or just kids being educated about it, I don't see it anymore. I don't see kids gaining 25 pounds over the summer, kids with the acne on the back or the personality changes that are caused by steroids."

But most people believe students will continue to abuse their bodies with drugs and alcohol, and Belanger said drug-testing in high schools will always be worthwhile. A recent survey at the University of Michigan indicated use of illegal drugs by teen-agers has risen the last few years. Belanger said he received a phone call this summer from someone who had helped him spearhead the effort to make voluntary drug-testing legal at the high school level.

"The guy called after the Supreme Court ruling and said, 'Hey, Doctor. We won,' " Belanger said.

Workman said schools can only win the war on drugs if they play. He realizes it's not cheap to play, but he says it's more expensive to lose.

"We're already paying for people in drug rehab centers and for people in mental institutions with their brains fried," Workman said. "Somebody's got to believe in these programs. You have to believe in the long run it's going to benefit you. And that benefit is not only found in wins and losses on the football field."

But those benefits have not been so obvious to some students at Corona del Mar, senior Megan Wachtler said.

"Most people don't like it," said Wachtler, a varsity tennis player. "They feel it doesn't matter what they do outside school. It wouldn't bother me either way, but I don't understand why athletes are being singled out. If you're only going to test athletes, you might as well test everybody."

Workman said he has read that some students at Corona del Mar are opposed to voluntary drug testing and he doesn't like what he's hearing.

"I hear that they said it shouldn't matter what they do as long as it doesn't interfere with school," he said. "What does that tell you? The next thing they'll say is it shouldn't matter what they do as long as it doesn't interfere with their life."

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