New Jersey to Test High School Athletes for Drugs

New Jersey will begin random testing of high school athletes for everything from steroids to amphetamines. All athletes face possible testing before championship events. New Jersey is the first state to employ such a sweeping drug testing program though some school districts take similar steps.

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New Jersey will soon become the first state to test high school athletes for steroids. Former Governor Richard Codey signed an executive order last December requiring random tests of students who participate in championship tournaments. Any student athlete found to be using illegal performance enhancing drugs would be suspended from competition for one year.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

There's nothing about school athletics in New Jersey that makes it the obvious choice to become the first state to test for steroids. Instead, the state happened to have a governor who's a sports nut. So, last year Governor Codey created a task force to come up with a plan to eliminate steroids in high school sports. Bob Bailey, of the state athletic association, says the group came up with a strategy to educate students, but they decided to add random drug testing as a deterrent.

Mr. BOB BAILEY (New Jersey Athletic Association): We reviewed it just like a physical. We're making sure students when they enter an athletic contest will be healthy and won't be injured. We know that steroids has a harmful effect on anybody that takes them. So, I think we're talking health and safety first.

SOLOMON: Predictably, the ACLU of New Jersey begs to differ. Deborah Jacobs, the chapter's director, says it's not for the state to decide what kind of medical tests children should take.

Ms. DEBORAH JACOBS (ACLU, New Jersey): Having the school make the decision to subject a child to a medical examination really undermines the authority of the parent and the family privacy in that kind of decision making. So, this is something where really the government's trying to take on a roll that doesn't belong to it. It belongs to parents and it's a private family issue.

SOLOMON: The ACLU has fought random drug testing for recreational drugs, but courts have allowed schools to test students who take extracurricular activities if a compelling drug problem can be demonstrated. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says steroid use among teenagers peaked in 2002 and is now in decline. One study found that 1.5 percent of high school seniors took steroids in 2005.

(Soundbite of baseball team training)

SOLOMON: At West Essex High School in North Caldwell, the baseball team works out on a blustery day, preparing for a run at the championship. Coach Scott Illiano says he doesn't think his players use steroids, but he would support random drug tests because he thinks it will help cut down on drug use of any kind.

Mr. SCOTT ILLIANO (Coach, West Essex High School): I really feel that that's a great thing to advocate to young teenage athletes and I also think that if the policy is enforced and the student athletes know what the parameters are, I think they'll certainly be less likely to violate any substance abuse policy.

SOLOMON: The West Essex ballplayers certainly don't look like they're pumped up on steroids, but it's a good team, stocked with juniors who very well could have to pee in a cup next year before playing in a championship tournament. Pitcher Dominic Romundo says he hasn't heard about the drug testing plan.

Mr. DOMINIC ROMUNDO (West Essex High School Baseball team): It's good because a lot of us work harder and they get the advantage for just taking like a pill or shooting a needle and it's not really fair. It's like the kids that don't take it are working just as hard as them. So, it's good in a way, but I really don't think too many kids are taking steroids in high school.

SOLOMON: The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is expected to approve the testing plan on June 7th. The program would test 500 of the 10,000 students who participate in championship tournaments, beginning with the 2006-07 school year, which means the first drug test will probably be given before the tournaments in late fall.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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