Beaufort News

Beaufort County schools withhold number of failed student drug tests

The Beaufort County School District is refusing to release statistics on the results of the random student drug tests being administered to student athletes for the first time this year.

When asked how many of the nearly 500 tests given this fall were positive for drugs or alcohol, district spokesman Jim Foster said he could not answer without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Foster and chief student services officer Gregory McCord agreed that providing a number of failed tests could lead to members of the community identifying the students in question.

Jay Bender, an S.C. Press Association attorney and lawyer for the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, said that sounded like a loose interpretation of the law.

"School districts are notorious for finding ways to shelter information from the public, and that (explanation) strikes me as a stretch," he said Monday.

According to FERPA, the district cannot release to the media personally identifiable information including a detail "that, alone or in combination, is linked or linkable to a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the school community, who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to identify the student with reasonable certainty," according to the provision Foster cited.

He stressed the words "in combination," noting situations like a student athlete's sudden absence from practice after taking a drug test.

Absolute Assurance Drug Testing has told the district about 10 percent of the tests would come back positive, based on its experience.

The district reported at least 79 incidents of drug possession and five of drug distribution in 2013-2014, according to the most recent annual report available. That's up from at least 43 drug-related infractions in 2012-2013.

Drug cases also accounted for about a quarter of the 271 disciplinary hearings held last year.

The district's first attempts at random drug testing were not without some kinks, though.

The first two test days led to long waits for students and a sort of scavenger hunt for administrators, problems the district says it has fine-tuned for future testing.

A total of 484 student athletes at 15 schools have been tested in two cycles since school began. The Beaufort County School District hopes to increase that figure to 300 students each month through its contracted company, Absolute Assurance Drug Testing LLC, according to McCord.

Tweaks in how the district corrals students for testing have also shaved some time off the process, allowing the company to finish its work in a large school about half an hour quicker.

When the district held its first cycle of testing, it took about two hours and 20 minutes, in part because many student athletes weren't attending class that morning in the same location as the school where they play.

At Bluffton High School, for example, the district discovered that many of the 80 students selected to be tested were actually homeschooled or at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence, River Ridge Academy, Bluffton Middle School or H. E. McCracken Middle School.

There was a second reason for the holdup.

The district did not give principals advance warning of which students had been randomly selected, so they didn't begin pulling students from class until the testing company arrived.

"We wanted it to be a completely pristine process," he said.

McCord says he now asks the company to divide its list by school and provide him with the names ahead of time so principals have about 45 minutes to gather students in one place.

The program launched with student athletes this year, at a cost of about $40,000, but the price tag will rise as more students are added to the pool.

It will expand to include students participating in extracurricular activities beginning in August 2016 and students who park on campus starting in August 2017.

The number of tests administered at each school depends on the number of students who participated in athletics in 2014-2015. Some schools, such as Bluffton High, will give far more tests than others, such as Whale Branch High, which only administers about 30 drug tests per month.

McCord said drugs and alcohol are among his top disciplinary concerns, though his goal is to identify and help students using illegal substances, not punish them.

While a student would be banned from extracurricular activities and parking on campus for one year for a first positive test, there would be no other disciplinary action. They can earn their spot back on a team with an assessment by a licensed substance-abuse professional, completing at least one treatment session within 10 days of the positive test, and passing another drug test within 30 to 90 days of the first failed test.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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