Federal Agency's Concerns Force Halt To Drug-Test Study At Schools

The Oregonian 11/08/02

EUGENE - A mandatory high school drug testing study sponsored by Oregon

Health & Science University and recently upheld by the state Court of

Appeals has been suspended following a federal investigation.

The investigation by the Office for Human Research Protections concluded that the $3.6 million program known as SATURN violated federal regulations on obtaining informed consent from children. The regulations are designed to protect research subjects from coercive environments.

Thirteen school districts in Western Oregon are participating in the study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Seven are conducting random drug testing. The others are participating, but are not testing.

Astoria High School is suspending drug testing until the SATURN program is reinstated, Principal Larry Lockett said Thursday. "We don't have another source of funding," he said. Drug testing is also being suspended at Dallas High School and Creswell High School.

Gary Temple, principal of Scio High School, said he is hoping for a short suspension. "We want to finish out the rest of the study and find out whether the program worked as it was designed to do," he said. In an Oct. 24 letter to OHSU President Peter Kohler, the office reported a number of concerns, including that high school principals and coaches were used to solicit assent from students and parents; that open classroom distribution of research surveys did not protect students from the potential of peer pressure; that monetary and other incentives provided by the project may have contributed to a coercive environment; that in some cases researchers did not gain approval for changes in its protocol; and that school personnel were not adequately trained by the research team. The office said all of the concerns and deficiencies must be corrected and reviewed before the study could be reinstated.

OHSU spokesman Martin Munguia said the university is working to correct the study's problems.

"We are hoping to get a plan to them in the next two weeks," he said. "We have no timeline on how long a review will take. I hope it will be sooner rather than later."

The university and the 13 participating SATURN schools are defendants in a lawsuit filed in June on behalf of a Dallas High School student by New Jersey lawyer Alan Milstein. The suit claims that mandatory drug testing required in the research study violates legal and ethical requirements for voluntary human research participants.

"It sounds as if the claims we are raising have been vindicated by the Office for Human Research Protections, and that the goal we are after - to protect human subjects - will be furthered by this ruling," Milstein said Thursday. "This is not about the constitutionality of drug testing. It is a case about the legitimacy of coercive informed consent and using students as guinea pigs."

Most of the schools in the SATURN study did not have a drug testing program in place before they were asked to participate. The SATURN study provided schools with a model drug testing policy and paid for drug tests. The study required that participating schools disqualify students from athletics if they refused to undergo drug screening.

Challenges to mandatory drug testing of student athletes have been unsuccessful. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the practice.

Two weeks ago, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled against Oakridge High School student Ginelle Weber, who was barred from playing sports because she refused to submit to mandatory drug testing. The unanimous court found that Oakridge High School's mandatory drug testing policy does not violate the Oregon Constitution's protections against unnecessary searches. Oakridge High School is a SATURN participant.

Weber said she was ostracized by students, coaches and teachers because of her stance against the drug testing program. The family has since moved to Cottage Grove, where she now attends a charter school.

Shannon Weber, Ginelle's mother, said she was delighted to hear that the

program has been suspended. "I'm smiling. I'm doing a little dance," she said.