LHISD officials discuss drug testing, school police options

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By Rachel Madison

Two informational presentations given during the Liberty Hill Independent School District’s regular meeting of the board of trustees Monday gave the Board a lot to think about when it comes to the health and safety of the district’s students.

The first presentation, given by Liberty Hill High School Principal Mario Bye, provided the Board with the information it needs to consider implementing a random drug testing program within LHISD. These types of programs can be implemented from sixth grade on up.

“Random drug testing programs started appearing in public schools in the late 1990s following a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the programs constitutional,” Bye said. “They pointed out that students’ Fourth Amendment rights were outweighed by the government’s interest in drug free schools.”

Bye said because the safety and well-being of students is his top priority, he conducted a survey of districts that are near LHISD or are similar in demographics about random drug testing. Of the districts he reached out to, he received a 71 percent response rate.

The 10-question survey gave Bye a view into how other similar school districts run their random drug testing programs. All but one of the respondents have a random drug testing program in place. The way the drug testing was considered random varied slightly.

“Of [the surveyed districts with a program], 100 percent include students in UIL and extracurricular activities,” he said. “This includes students in athletics, band and choir, as well as FFA, FCCLA, dance and cheerleading. Sixty-five percent of the districts with programs also include any student who holds a campus parking permit. A small number of districts also reported that students in campus clubs were in the random pool, and six even allow volunteers to participate.”

When looking at how often students are tested, 74 percent of the districts test 30 or more students once a month, Bye said. If a test is positive, 100 percent of the respondents notify parents and suspend the student from after school activities, while 80 percent provide some type of counseling.

“The conclusion here is that these programs are established to help students who may have a problem, not just to punish them,” Bye added.

The last aspect of the survey looked at perceptions of random drug testing programs. Eighty-seven percent of respondents felt the programs provided an “effective” or “highly effective” deterrent from drugs, Bye said.

“Most saw their programs send a good message and help students stop using drugs,” he said. “There was also a 95 percent positive parent response to the programs and a 90 percent positive teacher response to the programs. Eighty percent of students were neutral on the issue. So parents think the programs are great—students not so much.”

Bye said the cost of a program would have to be considered before implementation. He expects a program would cost LHISD $5,000 to $10,000 a year, but he said there are grants available to support drug testing programs.

“We did not look at specific data, but the cost of a random drug testing program can be more cost effective to a community than paying for treatment after the problem exists,” he said.

Board president Clay Cole asked if students or parents could dispute a positive drug test and who would administer the tests. Bye responded by saying these are decisions the Board would have to make, but that in his past experience at other school districts, students who had a positive test had to show three negative tests following the initial test in order to resume activity. He said an outside drug testing company is typically utilized in the schools, and they send in their own employee to administer the tests. Some districts also have their school nurse collect samples as well, Bye added.

Trustee Clint Stephenson asked when students would be notified that they would have to do a drug test. Bye said typically the drug testing company would send a list of students to be tested to the school the evening before or morning of the test. Vickie Peterson wondered if the tests would be done on random days so that students wouldn’t learn to expect the tests. Bye said the tests would take place on different days at different times.

Board member Anthony Buck asked why 100 percent of students at the school couldn’t be included in the random drug testing. LHISD Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart responded that the district can only regulate participation, meaning students who are involved in extracurriculars or students who have parking permits can be tested, but the entire student body cannot be tested.

The second presentation, given by LHISD assistant superintendent Chad Pirtle, provided trustees with several options when it comes to campus security. Pirtle presented on four different options that LHISD could implement to deter someone from entering a campus to harm students or staff. These options include hiring a school resource officer (SRO), creating a school district police department, implementing a school marshal program or a guardian program.

“There is no fool proof, silver bullet, one-size-fits-all solution that will absolutely, without a doubt, keep our campuses safe 100 percent of the time, but there are deterrents that can be in place to make someone think twice before entering one of our campuses to harm our students or staff,” Pirtle said.

Pirtle gathered his information on these four possibilities by speaking with multiple police chiefs, other school district safety personnel, a representative from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), community members who have experience in SROs and school police departments, and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).

Currently, 24 percent of Texas schools utilize SROs, who are certified peace officers. The approximate cost of the SRO program would be about $97,000 to $125,000 for the first year, Pirtle said.

The second option is for the school district to create its own police department by commissioning school district peace officers. Pirtle said just under 200 Texas school districts have their own police departments, including Austin ISD, Bastrop ISD, Pflugerville ISD and Hutto ISD. The number of officers per students varies greatly around the state, from one officer for every 600 students up to one officer for every 2,000 students. The approximate cost of this program would be about $155,000 for a police chief and an additional $125,000 for a police officer during the program’s first year.

“We would have a full-time police department committed specifically to [our] district,” Pirtle said. “It would be a dedicated, in-house force with full police authority available at all times staffed by individuals who work regularly with kids. That doesn’t mean we would be telling the sheriff [chief] how to be the sheriff [chief]. That’s his job. But we would have a say in who we hire, how they are trained, the resources provided to officers and their policies and procedures.”

The third option is to create a school marshal program. A school marshal must be appointed by the district’s board of trustees and must have the appropriate licensing and certification by TCOLE, according to the Texas Education Code.

“A school marshal can carry or possess a handgun on the physical premises of a school,” Pirtle said. “They may carry it on their person unless the primary duty of the school marshal involves regular, direct contact with students. In that case, the school marshal must place the handgun in a locked and secured safe on the physical premises of the school and within the marshal’s immediate reach.”

Pirtle said a marshal may only access their handgun under circumstances that would justify deadly force for the safety or protection of others. He added that he’s not sure how many Texas school districts are currently using school marshals.

The last option is a guardian program, which started in Texas’ Harrold ISD in 2007. This option would allow the school board to adopt a local policy giving authorization for specific employees to carry firearms on school premises. TASB reports 172 districts currently utilize the guardian program.

The guardian program provides more flexibility than the school marshal program because districts can set their own requirements, rules and procedures, Pirtle said. In addition, anyone can be granted permission to carry a firearm on campus through a contract, and firearms can be worn in holsters or kept in safes—which would also be a school board decision.

Pirtle added that the cost for both the school marshal program and the guardian program would be approximately $1,500 per person per year.

Stephenson asked if the secure entry vestibules at each school could be bolstered with bullet-proof glass as an additional way to increase security. He also wondered if the district could hire a third-party company to do a risk assessment of the campuses’ security to see if there were areas where the schools could improve. Pirtle said this is something the district has not considered so far.

Stephenson also asked if the district decides on the SRO route, would it have the power to fire or replace the SRO if there were any problems with the officer. Pirtle said the district would have to have a clear memorandum of understanding in place for situations like that.

“If we went this route, we would have to find out the lessons learned from other school districts beforehand,” added Peterson.

Stephenson asked if it would be a good idea to put safes around the schools to serve as the schools’ “ADT security signs” by showing campuses are prepared.

Peterson asked about training for the school police officers. She said she liked the idea of an SRO going back to their department during the summer to keep up on their skills in the field.

No decisions were made after either presentation, but board members agreed that the presentations gave them a lot of material to work with as well as a good jumping off point to start making serious decisions on random drug testing programs and school police options before the 2018-19 school year begins.

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