In November of 2015, Lovett’s Board of Trustees announced that the school would be implementing a random drug testing policy for the upper school starting the following year.
This announcement followed a decade of conversations, research, and planning. Dabney Hollis, a member of the Board of Trustees and a parent of a Lovett junior, said that in her ten years on the Board, “There has not been a year we did not talk about the wellness of our students.”
At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the administration hair tested each high school student, the results seen only by his or her parents. The administration was able to see the aggregate number of students who tested positive without seeing specific names.
While the administration did not disclose any results of that first test, Principal Dan Alig said the results were “what the company [Psychemedics] predicted we would get.” He clarified that Lovett’s results fell into the average of most schools that use Psychemedics.
Alig said that this policy wasn’t a reaction to any one incident but rather a general knowledge that drug use is an issue in high schools around the country. He and Headmaster Billy Peebles both cited a Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) survey that Lovett high school students took anonymously in 2015, the results of which disturbed the administration.
Peebles said the survey showed that 50% of students had used marijuana in the previous year. While Peebles noted that Lovett didn’t have any way of knowing how frequent the use was for each student, “We had to acknowledge everything we were doing, you could just say it wasn’t working. We needed to come up with something else, so we really switched the paradigm,” he said.
According to Peebles, Lovett’s “strong commitment to drug education...begins in an age appropriate way in the Lower School, and continues in the Middle School.” Parents undergo an alcohol and drug education program called PRIME for Life.
In developing the random drug testing policy, the struggle was figuring out how to keep it “outside of discipline,” according to associate principal Mary Spencer.
They realized they could lean mostly towards student health, while leaving the discipline avenue open for certain circumstances. “That was a breakthrough for us,” Alig said. “When we decided, You know what, we still have disciplinary consequences when students bring substances to campus or use at a Lovett event, [but] we’re going to take this process and pull it out of our disciplinary system and make this a health and wellness issue.”
The fact that this policy came under health and wellness is, among other things, what won the consensus of the Board of Trustees concerning this policy, said Peebles, adding that every trustee member voted “Yes” except one.
Hollis, from the Board of Trustees, said that the initial reaction for the test among the Board was positive. “For the kids, it takes the pressure off if they are offered anything. For the parents, it supports them in helping their kids make good decisions,” she said.
Jackie Hardy, a parent of two juniors, said she’s “thrilled with the policy. I feel like it gives kids the opportunity to say no and gives kids the opportunity to say no and gives them one more reason to try to make the right choice.” While she knows that it can’t stop all drug use, “In my family, I think it’s a good thing.”
According to Alig, the Upper School faculty were also overwhelmingly in favor of this program. He acknowledged that the feeling wasn’t unanimous, “but the vast majority thought we should move forward with it.” He said many cited friends or family members who battled addictions that began in high school.
He also pointed out that Lovett faculty and staff have been subject to drug testing since 2013. “I was hair-tested the month I arrived from Houston,” Alig said.
The way the drug testing policy works is as follows. Once a hair sample is tested by a 3rd party company called Psychemedics, the results go to another company called Secure Test Results (STR). STR verifies if the student has any prescribed medications, communicating positive or negative results to parents, and communicating positive results to only three administrators at Lovett, one being Peebles.
After the first positive test, the student and his or her parents will meet with two of the three aforementioned administrators, who will provide the family with information for outside counseling. The student will then have 100 days to “get clean” before being tested again.
Any subsequent positive results will prompt Lovett to request the family withdraw their child from Lovett for “Health and Wellness” reasons. According to Alig, the chances of readmission to Lovett is very slim. In a disciplinary case, Lovett will take action to dismiss a student rather than have the child withdraw.
But a student who tests positive the first time is still a full citizen of the school, said Peebles While that student will have to undergo drug testing and evaluation, “We don’t want a lot of conversation out there about who might have tested positive. We want to keep that as private and as confidential as possible. That’s why only three people will know,” he said.
During the policy making, Lovett also decided to use Psychemedics’ five panel drug screening, which tests for variations of cocaine, variations of marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, and phencyclidine.
Psychemedics is a drug testing firm that specializes in hair testing. According to the Psychemedics website, a hair test looks at the last three months, and more importantly for Lovett, focuses on habitual use rather than one-off usage.
In Alig’s words, “If we gave a student a hair test on a Monday, it would probably not capture what happened over the weekend, it's more about long term habit,” he said.
Although this test covers a wide array of substances, Lovett opted to not include alcohol. This sticks out as a major flaw for sophomore Dylan Shapiro, who was on a committee of students that had an influence on “how [the test] was implemented, how it was presented, and what would make students go along with it without too much of a protest about it and just how the administration could sell it best,” said Shapiro.
While on the committee, Shapiro supported the idea of emphasizing the health and wellness piece, however, he had some bigger issues with the test regarding alcohol. Shapiro said that if Lovett is implementing a drug test, “I don’t think leaving [the alcohol test] out is a good idea.”
Many students I spoke with were concerned that the test would drive students towards alcohol, a more dangerous substance “in the context of a student who is a young driver. It’s probably going to be worse, and it’s more easily accessible,” said Shapiro.
Alig also gave several reasons for why the current test doesn’t include alcohol.
While he acknowledged that alcohol is one of the biggest problems not only at Lovett, but in schools across the nation, he said that alcohol is more noticeable in a person than the substances included on the drug test. “If you’ve been drinking for two to three hours, I’m going to know. If you’ve been smoking marijuana two hours ago, I probably won’t know,” he said. “I think [the test] is a help to parents in that regard.”
Lovett parent Jackie Hardy didn’t see the lack of a hair alcohol test as a major issue. She asserts that the school has plenty of other opportunities to monitor alcohol use at school events.
Psychemedics’ alcohol hair test is also a fairly new development in the US and thus, few schools have tried it. “We didn’t want to be the guinea pig for that,” said Alig. He wants to hear how things work out with a couple of schools in Chicago that are using it, and one in Houston.
Yet another reason Alig gave is that alcohol testing “changes the tenor of the conversation altogether.” Because alcohol consumption is legal in certain situations, “that conversation is inherently more complicated than talking about use of substances that are illegal,” he said.
The alcohol test is also expensive. The alcohol test by itself is $70 dollars compared to the $39 cost of the current test. As it stands, Alig estimates the cost for the test this year to be around $45,000 dollars and will cost the school $30,000-$40,000 in subsequent years as the results will no longer be sent exclusively to parents next year, which costs additional money.
While more expensive, Lovett’s choices to show the fall semester results to parents only and start the random testing six months later “were all specific decisions that we made,” said Alig. He added that this was put in place to emphasize the health and wellness theme while also allowing those students who were using, however few, to rid their system of drugs before the random tests.
George Elder, the Vice President of Schools and Colleges for Psychemedics, who I communicated with by email, corroborated that when people are warned 3+ months before Psychemedics’ hair test, “most students and adults stop using or make the decision not to start using three months before the test in order to get a negative result,” he said, adding that the program is designed to identify those who are unable to stop using.
According to Alig, all of these decisions were well researched and Lovett looked at a number of model schools, including Woodward Academy, which implemented a urinalysis drug test program four years ago and added a follicle test more recently.
I reached out to Dr. Chris Freer, the Upper School Principal at Woodward, who told me in an email that although Woodward does not have concrete statistics of a decrease in drug usage at Woodward over the four years, “We have heard from both students and parents that the policy is working.”
As far as student reaction is concerned, Dr. Freer said that the test almost immediately became commonplace and students would report for testing when they were called and be in and out quickly. “We may have had a segment of the student population that was initially nervous if they were selected,” he said, “but once they saw how smoothly the process worked, they were less concerned.”
According to Dr. Freer, Woodward hasn’t seen any negative reactions to the Dean of Students office and school nurse, who oversee the testing. The Dean of Students, Woodward alum Anthony Thomas, attributed this to “giving students background as to why we implemented the program and the benefits for our students.”
When it comes to Lovett’s education piece, Shapiro said it’s a hard sell. Though the test falls under Health and Wellness, he doesn’t think it comes across that way.“I don’t think it ever will to be quite honest. It’s just very hard to present something that feels invasive like this,” he said. People know you can get kicked out, he said, and “when you hear of people getting kicked out, it doesn’t sound like it's for their benefit.”
Health and Wellness aside, students had other issues with this test. One student believes that Lovett is overstepping its boundaries as a school by putting this policy in place. “There’s only so much Lovett should be doing to control our lives outside of school,” this student said. “It should be up to families to decide how they want to discipline their kids.”
While admittedly less philosophical, some students also expressed to me that the amount of hair they take for testing is too much. “If you’re taking out a couple of hairs, I don’t care. But if you’re giving me a bald spot, then no,” said one unhappy student. While the Psychemedics website says the amount needed is equal to the thickness of a shoelace tip, students remain adamant that the hair loss is a problem.
A far more impending concern from students is that the drug test will drive students towards harder drugs that aren’t tested for. While drugs such as heroin or cocaine are covered under Psychemedics’ five panel test, other substances, often more dangerous than marijuana, aren’t. While Alig isn’t sure how widespread this issue is, he said, “It's disturbing to me, absolutely it is.”
It’s also a concern for parent Jackie Hardy, who said, “I think word gets out quickly about what drugs might not be covered on the drug test and I think maybe the usage just switches to those among the kids who are going to do it anyways.”
Yet Elder, from Psychemedics, said that the company is constantly evaluating hair treatments that are supposed to fool drug tests and developing assays for new drugs that are being abused.
When Psychemedics makes these developments, they “do not come to the school to announce them,” said Elder. “So students are forewarned to be careful before buying a hair treatment that very likely won’t alter the test results or try some new drug that they believe Psychemedics doesn’t test for.”
Both Alig and Spencer said that the research doesn’t point to people leaping immediately to hard drugs. “Kids don’t go from 0-60,” he said, mentioning nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana as “gateway drugs,” to these harder drugs. He also said that their focus with this program is “primarily on our 7th, 8th, and 9th graders when this is fully ensconced at Lovett.”
Essentially, this program is designed to remove the gateway for younger students who haven’t started “smoking things that they shouldn’t be and taking substances that are harmful to them,” said Alig. He said it may take a few years, perhaps not until the Spring of 2019, to have a good indication of “whether this is really working for us or not.”
The test is also subject to change. “This was never intended to be a static program,” Alig said. He said they plan to look at this annually, and multiple times over the course of each school year to make sure it’s meeting their objectives.
One such change that students will see next year is that when Lovett universally tests all the upper school students at the beginning of Fall semester, those results will go to both the parents and the school. Additionally, the random testing will begin in the Fall semester.
Even as the test changes in the coming years, Alig hopes that the drug test will become “more routine, more commonplace, and not as big of a deal,” just as Dr. Freer indicated it has at Woodward. However, Alig realizes that “it takes a while for something to become institutionalized.”