(Lincoln Journal Star) - Fairbury -- The dramatic increase in vaping and e-cigarettes convinced Fairbury Public Schools officials they should test students for nicotine as part of the random drug tests given to students involved in extracurricular activities.
"Vaping and smoking in our view is reaching epidemic proportions," said Fairbury Superintendent Stephen Grizzle. "It's just a way we can deter kids from potentially being addicted to nicotine. Since smoking and using vaping products are against our policies, it makes sense to include that."
Fairbury is one of a number of school districts in Nebraska that require random drug testing for students who want to participate in everything from athletics to Future Business Leaders of America to marching band.
The Fairbury district, about 50 miles southwest of Lincoln, is one of the first to include nicotine among the substances tested for.
For about two years, students in the public junior-senior high school who want to participate in extracurricular activities have been required to sign a consent form, along with their parents, saying they agree to the monthly tests.
This past week, the school board approved adding nicotine to the list of substances to be tested for during the urinalysis tests given by an Ohio-based company called Sport Safe Testing Service.
About 60% of the junior-senior high school students participate in after-school activities, Grizzle said. The district's enrollment was 934 in 2017-18, with 387 of those students in the junior-senior high school.
It works like this: Each student who participates in an extracurricular activity is given an ID number. Each month, 10% of those ID numbers are chosen, and a representative from a local medical facility collects the samples, which are sent to Sport Safe for analysis, Grizzle said.
The nicotine tests will be set at a level high enough to eliminate students who may have inhaled second-hand smoke, said Chris Franz, one of the owners of the company.
Grizzle said a "handful" of students each year have had tests that came back positive. When that happens, there's a list of consequences depending on the number of offenses, beginning with having to sit out 10 days and complete education requirements.
"It really helps the school to become a partner with the parents in helping deter kids from trying drugs and whatnot," he said. "We are pleased with the community buy-in. I think parents know we are trying to be as proactive as possible, so I think that helps."
He expects the number of students who test positive to increase when nicotine is included, but hopes it won't be a barrier to participation — and the number will ultimately go down.
Last year, Grizzle said, the rate of discipline for use of such products reached a "tipping point" that made officials consider the testing.
It's become a national concern. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General said e-cigarette use by young people had reached epidemic proportions, and a U.S. House subcommittee is conducting a congressional investigation into e-cigarette use by teenagers.
In Nebraska, the Legislature passed a bill this session raising the legal age to purchase vapor products and electronic cigarettes from 18 to 19 years old.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 3 million high school students use vaping products. In Lancaster County, the youth vaping rate increased from 23.8% in 2015 to 27.4% this year, said Brian Baker, program coordinator for the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department's tobacco prevention program.
Sport Safe Testing Service works with about 100 school districts throughout the country, according to its website, and Franz, one of the owners, estimated that includes about 10 Nebraska districts.
He said about a dozen districts that contract with Sport Safe included nicotine among the substances they tested for before vaping became so prevalent, and now others are considering adding it.
Grizzle said he doesn't worry about privacy or constitutional concerns, because participating in activities is a privilege, not a right.
In 2002, a divided U.S. Supreme Court found an Oklahoma school policy of randomly testing students in competitive nonathletic extracurricular activities constitutional. In 1995, a divided court found drug testing of high school athletes constitutional.
Lincoln Public Schools is among the districts that don't do drug testing of students involved in activities. Concerns about privacy, as well as cost, are among the reasons, and because testing reaches only a portion of the students, said Russ Uhing, director of student services.
LPS focuses more on educating families and students on the dangers, he said, and the district also is part of a youth task force spearheaded by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department that has done community-wide public awareness campaigns.
The cost for Fairbury will be about $900 a year, Grizzle said, and the district is looking into adding Wi-Fi-enabled sensors in bathrooms that would detect vapor from e-cigarettes and notify administrators.
They'll spend the summer getting the word out about the decision to add nicotine to the regular drug testing.
"We want it to be a deterrent," he said. "Kids are under a whole lot of pressure to experiment with drugs or nicotine."
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