JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three prominent private schools in Jacksonville will randomly test their students for drug and alcohol use beginning in September 2020.
News4Jax obtained an email sent to parents, announcing that the trustees for both The Bolles School and Episcopal School of Jacksonville voted unanimously to launch the random drug and alcohol testing program next year for their high school students. A separate notice, which mirrors those sent to Bolles and Episcopal parents, was sent to Bishop Kenny parents Wednesday afternoon.
School leaders hope the program will deter students from using drugs and alcohol.
"The primary purpose of this is to help somebody that has a need," The Bolles School's President and Head of School Tyler Hodges told News4Jax. "It is not a disciplinary approach that is trying to trap students in any way."
According to the emails to Bolles, Episcopal and Kenny parents, the schools already had policies for drug testing based on suspicion, but the new program will expand to randomly test all students in ninth to 12th grades.
According to the message, the policy change is not a response to any specific isolated event or perceived issue at the schools but is “rooted in an honest acknowledgment that all schools and communities are grappling with the issue of drug and alcohol use and that we must do more in the way of deterrence, prevention and counseling.”
The messages indicated the drug testing program is designed as a health initiative first, not a disciplinary one, but that students who test positive twice will be subject to each school's policies.
The tests, which deliver immediate results, will be saliva-based and will be performed by a school nurse at each campus, according to the emails.
“Each school has their own policies and disciplinary procedures regarding illegal substances that will apply if a student tests positive,” the Bolles and Episcopal email said. “These should be reviewed in the school's Parent/Student Handbook.”
The message to parents said the initiative is an effort to deter drug and alcohol use among students, who are often vulnerable to peer pressure and are at risk for long-term addiction if they begin using controlled substances as teens.
“A mandatory testing program provides another important deterrent for our students to resist cultural and peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs,” the emails said. “Numerous independent schools across the country have implemented random drug testing programs and note tangible success in reducing alcohol and drug use among their students.”
Hodges said the testing program also aims to address the vaping epidemic.
"One of the issues that we are facing recently, nationally, is vaping, electronic cigarettes, Juuls," he said. "So our tests, which are going to test for 15 different drugs, will also test for nicotine."
The drugs that the saliva test will detect also include alcohol, cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana, opiates, oxycodone and synthetic marijuana.
News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said he believes the program is a great concept to help deter drug use.
"It’s happening in the schools," Jefferson said. "Whether you are in private school or you’re in public school, drugs are everywhere."
Some parents told News4Jax that they think it’s extreme, while others said it’s necessary.
"There’s probably some crucial conversations about to be had," said Brian Ross, a father of three. "And that is probably healthy, probably uncomfortable for a lot of parents with their kids, but probably necessary."
The schools will cover the initial costs of the testing program, but after a positive test result, all expenses of any substance abuse treatment will be parents' responsibilities.
News4Jax was told that at The Bolles School, between eight and 10 students will be tested each week, which will cover about 20% to 25% of the student body each school year.
The Bolles School will hold meetings for parents at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, on campus, and those who cannot attend are encouraged to call or email the school with any questions or concerns.
Bolles and Episcopal also posted frequently asked questions pages with more details about how the policy pertains specifically to their schools. A nearly identical set of questions and answers were included in the email sent to Kenny parents.