MEMPHIS, Tenn.—A decision on how to cope with any illicit drug use by students in the all-male Christian Brothers High School was so obvious to the principal, Brother Chris Englert, that he called it “a real no-brainer.”

But it wasn't until lengthy consultations with the school's administrators, teachers, pupils, parents and alumni that he issued a mandatory drug-testing program, which will start next September, for all of the school's almost 900 students.

Using a hair from each student's head, lab technicians will test for marijuana, cocaine, opiates (including heroin), PCP and methamphetamines. (Alcohol abuse cannot be detected by the test.) Though applauded by most people connected with the schools, some say the program could see deleterious effects by treating all students like criminals.

The Memphis school will become only the second of 48 Christian Brothers high schools in the United States and Canada to make such a concerted anti-drug effort.

Officials of the other school, De La Salle High School in New Orleans, are expecting the Memphis move to stimulate their own successful 2-year-old program. Brother Frank Carr, director of education for the Midwest district of the Christian Brothers, headquartered in Illinois, was reluctant to back the idea when he first heard about it.

“Having been a school administrator for some years, I questioned whether it could be done,” he told the Register. “But when it was explained in full to me, it sounded more and more possible. I am on the Memphis board and I eventually voted for it after I was given all the information.”

Brother Carr was quick to note that the program “definitely is not a punitive one — but rather one in which the students who are found to have a problem are given a time period of 100 days to continue in school while they and their parents work with professionals to control or resolve the problem.”

$60-a-Year Assessment

Brother Englert, the Memphis principal, explained that under the program, parents are assessed $60 a year to cover the cost of the hair scanning, which is done at random annually. The dean of students, who heads the program, is the only school official with access to the test results.

“This is not a zero-tolerance program, because the students who are found to have used drugs are given more than three months to get help and clean up their acts before they are tested again,” Brother Englert explained. “But if drugs are detected after the 100 days or any time following that, the student is summarily expelled.”

What surprised the school administrators in New Orleans and Memphis, Brother Englert added, was the “tremendous reception from all quarters — parents, teachers, the general public and even constitutional-rights advocates who normally might challenge the testing as an invasion of rights.”

“I was taken aback by the overwhelming praise we have heard for the planned program,” said the Memphis principal. Although officials of the two other Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Memphis also expressed agreement with what the Christian Brothers school planned to do, a diocesan spokesman said, “We're not making any plans to implement anything like that at our other schools.”

Among the Memphis-area private school leaders quoted in the Commercial Appeal newspaper was Thomas Southard, headmaster of St. Mary's Episcopal School, who said, “I think it is a policy that [the Christian Brothers school] thought long and hard about, and I think you will find that, in the long run, it is something parents will greatly appreciate.”

Not everyone is convinced, however.

“Are they running into actual, serious drug problems on their campus?” asked Dennis Teti, a government professor at Regent University, contacted for comment by the Register. “If so, there's a rationale. But if this is just their way of addressing a general problem in society, that's no justification for demeaning the students' human dignity. It makes everyone a suspect; it implies that they believe they have criminals for students.”

Random drug testing also undermines parents’ efforts to raise their kids with self-respect, added Teti. “If you catch my kid doing something wrong at your school, by all means, punish him according to your policies. But please don't mistrust or suspect him for no reason whatsoever. Treat him as responsible and that's how he'll tend to behave.”

The Christian Brothers program, noted Teti, follows suit with similar programs enacted by the federal government and many businesses over the past several years. “It's really a sign that we admit that we took a wrong turn in the '60s and '70s,” he said. “But creating a police state isn't the right way to correct our past mistakes; if anything, it concedes that we've failed as a society. The solution is instilling kids with good values and teaching them right from wrong.”

Gives Students an ‘Out’

Christian Brothers schools throughout the country operate with the blessing of each diocese, but are not as strictly guided by individual diocesan regulations, as are the diocesan parochial schools.

“The best thing about the program is that students who are pressured by peer groups to get involved in drugs have a way out with this drug-testing by being able to tell their neighborhood friends who are doing drugs that they can't, because of the testing,” said Joseph Hines, dean of students, who supervises the drug-detection program at De La Salle in New Orleans.

“It gives the kids a way out by providing them with an excuse they can give their peers without having to lose face,” he added. “That way, they have the best of all worlds by not having to use drugs and still not look like wimps.”

The drug testing is done by extracting fluids that flow through the cortex of human hair and then chemically analyzing those fluids, said Hines.

Under the New Orleans and Memphis programs, when a student comes up positive on the test, he is not forced into any counseling program. His parents are informed and meet, along with the student, with the program director to discuss counseling. The student resumes regular attendance at school until he is tested again in about 100 days (by which time the markers of the drug should have worn off).

“If the student comes up clean, he will continue in school and take the drug test once a year until graduation as long as he keeps clean,” said Brother Joel McGraw, assistant principal of the Memphis school.

“We are looking at this as a positive matter, because, if a student is using drugs, we detect it, call it to the student's attention and to the attention of the parents,” he added. “We put it to them this way: ‘Here is the problem; here is the student; here are the parents. Now, let's work together to remedy this situation.’”

Robust Response

“The problem of drugs at CBHS here in Memphis, of course, existed for a long time, as it has everywhere else in the country,” Brother McGraw added. “But, for the past five years, we have wrestled with what to do about it — until last February, when we pretty much settled on using the hair test.”

A similar program was considered, but rejected, at the De La Salle College/Oaklands high school in Toronto. Brother Dominic Diggini, principal, said, “It is something that is not a possibility in Canada. We've had a legal opinion on drug testing and it is certainly not a possibility here.”

In Memphis, Brother Englert pointed out that the hair drug-testing program was but one of several ongoing efforts by the school to eliminate drug use by its students. He maintained that drug testing was only “a small part of a larger substance-abuse prevention program at the school,” which has a 60% Catholic enrollment.

“The school has a mandatory meeting for all freshmen and their parents once a year to hear formal presentations on the dangers of alcohol and drug use,” he added.

Moreover, he said, the administrators of the school meet with students before dances, proms and other large social gatherings to present short lectures on how to behave properly.

Brother Englert also emphasized that students enroll at Christian Brothers High “because they choose to be here.”

“That gives them a reason not to do drugs,” he added. “They say no because they don't want to be kicked out of CBHS. I compare their saying no because they don't want to be kicked out of CBHS to a policeman sitting on the expressway. If we know he's there, we're going to drive a lot slower.”

Regent University's Teti remains skeptical. “In a self-governing society, we're citizens, not criminals,” he said. “Constant checking up on everyone creates what it attempts to overcome — a society of suspects. That's just not healthy for a free society.”

Robert R. Holton writes from Memphis, Tennessee.