In Piss They Trust

Jane Sherman

By most conceivable measures, it has been a horrifying year for the northern Minnesota city of Cass Lake. With fewer than 900 residents, the little reservation town has long been plagued by problems of violence and poverty. Its troubles have been the subject of countless newspaper articles, community forums, and emotional expressions of resolve from politicians and tribal leaders to end the cycle.

But even for a town that has suffered so much, the month-long spate of violence that erupted in Cass Lake this fall was something new. In less than two months, four area residents--three between the ages of 17 and 23--were murdered in separate incidents. The grim tally of premature deaths was further boosted by a suicide and then a drunken-driving fatality. And no one, it seems, was immune--even the mayor's son was shot and wounded.

For Dan Ninham, the highly regarded coach of the boys' basketball team at Cass Lake-Bena High School, the escalating, drug-fueled violence was just too much. Ninham, who has coached at the school for 10 years, knew one of the victims of the recent murder spree, a 20-year-old man named Michael Littlewolf. Ninham knew Littlewolf as a JV basketball player, whom he delicately recalls as "an outstanding athlete who went down a different road." Ninham also knew the boys involved in one of Cass Lake's most notorious killings, the random bludgeoning of a blind man who was walking his dog on a downtown street one night in 2002.

"It's just made me wonder what I could do--as a coach, as a parent, as a member of the community," Ninham says. A self-described "idea man," the coach didn't take long to settle on a solution: Institute a policy of random drug testing for all middle and high school students who are involved in extracurricular activities in the Cass Lake-Bena school district. Nationwide, such policies have become increasingly popular over the past decade. According to the National School Boards Association, an estimated 13 percent of school districts engage in some form of drug testing. Minnesota remains a curious exception. So far, not a single district in the state has instituted a drug testing policy for students.

Nonetheless, Ninham drummed up considerable support for his proposal, garnering backing from district superintendent Todd Chessmore, along with an array of exasperated teachers, parents, students, politicians, and tribal leaders.

The backing of the tribal band is especially significant, because Leech Lake Gaming agreed to pay for and administer the program, effectively eliminating one of the perennial criticisms of school drug testing--that it's simply too expensive. (Drug-testing programs have proved to be very expensive; in Dublin, Ohio, for instance, school administrators discontinued their program after realizing that they spent nearly $3,200 for each positive test result.)

Locally, Ninham says he has yet to hear much in the way of criticisms. He expects the school board to vote on a formal testing proposal as early as January, and is optimistic about its chances. But if there isn't much controversy in Cass Lake, elsewhere the drug testing of students has been fiercely contested. In a series of legal challenges, the federal courts have ruled that the testing does not violate students' constitutionally protected rights, provided that the tested students are engaged in a voluntary, extracurricular activity.

But Graham Boyd, a lawyer who serves as the director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Reform Project, says there are plenty of reasons besides the Constitution not to drug-test students. Students who are most likely to use drugs, he points out, are not the ones engaged in extracurricular activities; on the contrary, research has shown that participation in after-school activities is an effective deterrent to drug use. By that reasoning, Boyd argues, suspending kids from such programs may only serve to encourage drug use.

Boyd acknowledges that some schools have reported declines in drug use after instituting testing programs. But the largest, most definitive survey on the subject found no correlation between testing and incidence of drug use. That study, conducted by the University of Michigan's School of Public Health as part of nationwide evaluation of teen drug use and called "Monitoring the Future," bluntly concluded that "drug testing of any kind, including for cause or suspicions, was not a significant predictor of marijuana use. These results remained for all samples, even after controlling for student demographic characteristics."

While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the federal constitutionality of drug testing, the Cass Lake-Bena school board could still find itself mired in a court fight if it adopts the proposed policy. That's because legal challenges can also be mounted on the basis of state constitutions, which often set broader privacy standards than the federal constitution. According to the ACLU's Boyd, state courts in Colorado and Pennsylvania have already rejected testing programs, and a similar challenge is pending in Washington.

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the ACLU, says lawyers with his organization are currently examining whether the Minnesota constitution might provide a similar legal opening. Regardless, Samuelson is vehement in his opposition. "I'm not slamming Cass Lake. This community has huge problems. Incredible poverty, incredible despair, incredible racism, and a huge surge in drug-related killings. So I can sympathize with the desire to take action," Samuelson says. "But it's sort of like the Patriot Act. It appeals to the American quick-fix idea, but it's incredibly bad public policy."

"I don't know what the right action is," he adds. "But I suspect it's going to have to involve a lot more than the schools."

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