Highland awaits answer on money for resource officer

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Staff Writer

The Highland School District continues to operate without a school resource officer, originally hoped to be in place by August 2004, and student drug use is continuing but declining, high school principal Don Carithers said.

"It hasn't gone away, but it's not as present as it has been in the past," he said.

Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver applied for a $125,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in May 2004 to provide the salary and benefits for a school resource officer for a three-year period; however, the county has not been approved for or denied the grant.

The funds for the grant weren't available until December 2004, Weaver said. With many cuts in law enforcement grant programs, including school resource funding, he said he hopes the county receives the grant before more funding cuts take place. Ash Flat, Cherokee Village, Hardy, Highland, Sharp County and the school district have each agreed to contribute $10,550 during a four-year period to cover the additional costs for equipment, a vehicle and uniform.

"I'm not going to give up on it," he said. "We're still interested and we want it."

In the meantime the district adopted a random drug testing policy for students in grades seven through 12 before the 2004-2005 school year began. Students who participate in extracurricular activities or drive to school are subject to the monthly testing in which approximately 25 students are asked to take a urine drug test. Other students can also be tested with the permission of parents or guardians.

The action came about after police were called to the school several times during the 2003-2004 school year in reference to drugs -- primarily prescription medications and marijuana, Highland Police Chief Bea Sharp said.

The number of out of school suspensions for drugs and alcohol during the 2003-2004 school year tripled from the 2002-2003 school year, said school board member Dawana Goings, who worked with Sharp County Judge Harold Crawford to obtain the support from the community for the officer.

The breaking point came in March 2004 when a 17-year-old student admitted she had sold or given 47 pills, identified as 15 mg Buspar and 200 mg Seroquel tablets, to 12 students, ages 15 to 18, during lunch period. Since the testing was implemented the number of police calls to the high school have decreased.

"It's going very well," Carithers said. "I think that has done as much for the decline in use as anything. What it's done has provided students that might have tried it a good excuse not to. They might be next on the random list and they know that."

Some students have been tested more than once because of the test being completely random, Carithers said; however, there have been a few positive results.

"There have been a very, very large number of clean tests," he said.

He would not give a specific number of positive results. Goings said even the school board is not given specific numbers of positive tests.

"The administrative is being very careful in keeping that information confidential," she said.

If a student tests positive for drugs he will be put on a 20-day probation from extracurricular activities and driving to school. The student will be included in the next testing. If the student tests positive during the next testing he will be suspended from activities and driving for the remainder of the semester. If the test is positive a third time the student will be suspended from activities and driving for the remainder of their enrollment at Highland. Police will not become involved if a student tests positive, but parents will be notified. The test results will not be released to anyone unless subpoenaed.

Although the drug use seems to have decreased a problem still exists, Weaver said.

Several students were found possessing and distributing prescription drugs in school in January. The Highland Police Department, Drug Task Force and the county juvenile officer continue to investigate the case, Weaver said.

"If we had a school resource officer we think it would at least help," Weaver said.

At the March 8 school board meeting the board expelled two students for the remainder of the school year for drugs, but the two were not related to the January instance or the drug testing, Goings said. The two students were also suspended last year for drugs as well, she said.

"It's time they started doing some of that (suspending and expelling)," Weaver said. "In other schools if you do something like that you're a goner. You're expelled. They won't tolerate that."

Possessing any form of drugs by a student is against the rules, Carithers said. If a student has a medication to take, he is to take it to the school office and give it to the school nurse. Even nonprescription medications such as Tylenol and ibuprofen are to be kept with the nurse.

An officer in the schools could connect with the students and help in many different instances, not just drug issues. An officer would take part in crime prevention, provide assistance to school faculty, conduct locker and vehicle inspections and attend school events. The officer could help to determine where students are obtaining drugs and could also be a liaison between the students and the court system.

"The officer is not there just for drugs. He's there to assist in all sorts of issues and problems," Goings said. "It's a resource we can use that's being funded and could be positive in the schools."