While Creighton Prep may have grabbed the headlines Wednesday with its announcement that it will begin mandatory, random drug and alcohol testing for all students next fall, it's not the first Catholic school in Nebraska to launch a testing program.
A growing number of public schools also are testing, although their programs are limited by law to students in extracurricular activities.
“I think it will be something that catches on a little bit,” said Matt Huck, Scottsbluff High School's assistant principal and drug program coordinator.
His school, he said, was among the first in the state to start randomly testing students in extracurricular activities for drugs about a half-dozen years ago. Now several other western Nebraska districts have their own programs, including neighboring Gering.
It's unclear, however, how many schools have such programs. The Nebraska Department of Education doesn't track it, and the Nebraska School Activities Association leaves decisions to local districts. The Archdiocese of Omaha's Catholic Schools Office's also leaves the decision up to schools.
All of those who do test cited the same reason — helping kids.
Officials said their programs all come with education about the risks of drugs and opportunities for those who test positive to get back on track.
“We're not playing a game of gotcha, we're playing a game of prevention and making good decisions,” said Wayne Morfeld, president and principal of Scotus Central Catholic in Columbus, Neb., now in its second year of random drug testing for all students.
Prep officials gave similar reasons for adopting their new program.
Michael Giambelluca, Prep's president, said the initiative is part of the boys school's developing health and wellness program, which already includes drug and alcohol education and concussion testing and, for the past few years, testing for steroids in athletes.
“This is going to make us a stronger school,” Giambelluca said. “Not for us, for our students.”
The school has no indication that the number of Prep students who use alcohol or drugs is any greater or less than at any other school in the area, Giambelluca said. Officials expect “the large majority” of students to test negative.
At Prep, the testing will be part of a three-pronged approach: educating students about the risks of alcohol and drug use; providing an early intervention that at first won't include discipline; and preventing use by giving students an easier way to say no.
The testing program is the most extensive among metro-area schools. Public schools cannot require drug tests for all students, based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
But other schools will be watching.
Kaitlin Ahart, a spokeswoman for Marian High School, said the Catholic girls school will take a step back and see how it works at Prep.
Like most metro-area high schools and others across the state, the school uses alcohol-detecting devices at various events, in its case dances and some trips. It also has brought in drug-sniffing dogs on occasion.
Roncalli High brought in dogs for a random sweep earlier this fall, said Jeff Dempsey, the Catholic school's president. Although the sweep turned up nothing, the school likely will continue the practice.
Rob Cooksey, head of schools for Concordia Lutheran Schools of Omaha, said he expects all schools likely will at least have a conversation at some point. Prep's announcement already has gotten people talking at his school. “We think that's good,” he said.
Morfeld said Scotus officials initially talked of testing students in extracurricular activities. But officials decided what would help those students could benefit everyone. They now test in grades nine through 12.
“To me, it's a health and safety issue for every one of our students, not just those in activities,” he said.
The school has had some students test positive. Anyone who doesn't think it can happen is naive, he said.
But he's also had students tell him, for example, that they had been using marijuana and decided not to because they thought it was more important to participate in school and activities.
“I really appreciated their honesty,” he said. “It made me feel really good.”
This fall, Columbus High School also started testing students in competitive activities for drugs, working with Columbus Community Hospital.
Principal Steven Woodside said the school thought it was important, with Scotus already testing, to be consistent across the community.
The school started with grades nine through 12. It will add grades seven and eight this spring. The good news, he said, is that there haven't been any positive tests to this point.
Adams Central High School in Hastings, Neb., also has been testing students involved in activities for several years — drugs, alcohol and steroids, said Ron Alexander, athletic director. The public high school has had very few positives.
Creighton Prep's testing will involve collecting hair — about 60 strands — from the heads of selected students and testing the samples for evidence of significant drinking and a variety of drugs. The testing can detect drug and alcohol use dating as far back as 90 days.
Prep has hired Psychemedics, a company based in Acton, Mass., to conduct the testing. Plans call for testing most students — 80 percent or more — over the course of a school year. The school will pay for the initial test, about $60 a student.
If a Prep student tests positive once, results will be shared with a counselor rather than administrators. The student and his parents or guardians would be called in to talk about the results, with no disciplinary consequences. The student would be tested again in 90 days, at the family's expense.
Another positive test would result in disciplinary action. The student also would be required to complete a chemical dependency screening, follow any recommendations and be tested again in 90 days.
A third positive test would result in dismissal.
Students appeared to take Wednesday's announcement in stride.
Adam Mullin, a sophomore and student council member, called the testing a good thing for the school.
“We have the ability now to catch things earlier on and help people” so they can move on, he said.
Junior Nicholas Davis, also a student council member, said the program would help students make smarter decisions and would give students a reason to say no.
The two students said some of their peers are leery about the program, some voicing concerns about privacy. But the two said they thought students would adjust.
“Overall,” said Mullin, “I think students are accepting it.”
In addition to significant alcohol use, the test will look for marijuana, PCP, amphetamines, cocaine and opiates. It won't test for K2 or other synthetic marijuana products. K2 was recently blamed for the death of a Greenwood, Neb., teen.
George B. Elder, Psychemedics' vice president for schools and colleges, said the company would like to add K2 to its lineup. But first it would need to pinpoint core chemicals, and hundreds of combinations are used to make synthetic marijuana.
Still, the testing covers 90 percent of mainstay drugs.
The alcohol test was launched in June. It won't pick up one beer drunk after a hunting outing or one glass of wine drunk at a wedding. It will pick up repeat usage — about seven drinks or more a month over a three-month period.
John Naatz, in his 22nd year as Prep's principal, said the Omaha school deliberately announced the testing before its annual scholarship and admissions testing for eighth-graders, which is set for this weekend.
Naatz said the midyear announcement also gives existing students and parents time to decide whether they can get on board with the testing program.
A second positive test result will include referral to the school's dean of students for discipline.
More information about the testing policy is available at www.creightonprep.org/wellness.
More information about the testing policy is available at creightonprep.org/wellness.
• The Westside school district allows parents to sign up their students for voluntary, random drug testing through a local health care provider. About 100 Westside students a month receive a letter asking them to report for testing. Families schedule the tests and receive the results. High school officials receive only aggregate data, nothing indicating sex, age or identity. About 900 of the roughly 2,250 students in grades seven through 12 are enrolled in the program.
• None of the several large local public school districts contacted — Omaha, Lincoln, Millard and Papillion-La Vista — use mandatory random alcohol or drug testing for students. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevents public schools from using mandatory tests for all students.
• Most area high schools occasionally use alcohol testing devices to screen students — either all or those suspected of being under the influence — at dances, sporting events or both.