The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Editorial: Before testing for drugs, why not work to get teens into activities?


May 24, 2016

The School Board earlier this month abruptly approved a new drug testing policy for students who participate in athletics and competitive activities.

The board had been discussing the concept for several months, so this didn’t come out of the blue. But thanks to some scheduling issues and an obscure board policy that allowed immediate adoption in the best interests of the district, a majority approved it without a second reading, which normally would be required in such decisions.

While we’re not opposed to drug testing for athletes, we wonder how this will look five years from now.

Is this a mountain-out-of-a-molehill deal or will it effectively stop at-risk teens from engaging in behavior detrimental to themselves and others?

To us, a bigger emphasis should be figuring out ways to encourage kids to simply get involved in activities that teach them to behave responsibly and valuable life skills.

We’ve noted before on this page that, in the last 15 years, poverty in Sweet Home has increased. We know it anecdotally. We can see it on the streets and in our schools. And the numbers bear this out: In 1999-2000, 45.5 percent of Sweet Home students qualified for free or reduced lunches; in 2014-15 it was 63.8 percent, a 40.2 percent increase and two-thirds higher than Linn County’s as a whole.

Poverty is a problem. It’s a problem when kids don’t have hope for a better life beyond their living room and the Oregon Trail Card. It’s a problem that often manifests itself in irresponsible and unhealthy living – drugs, alcohol, obesity, idleness, poor self-image and antisocial behavior, and crime, to name a few of the effects that are with us every day.

Our schools are one chance to turn this around. As we’ve also stated here in the past, for many local impoverished youngsters, school may be the most stable and caring environment they experience in their lives.

This year, the keynote speaker at the annual Senior Sports Awards Banquet was Dakotah Keys, who is, as one coach there stated publicly, arguably the greatest athlete ever to come out of Sweet Home.

Keys came from a one-parent, impoverished family. Without a determined mother and caring coaches, he would have been just another kid with all the odds stacked against him. There are enough former talented athletes wandering our streets today with vacant looks in their eyes from drugs clouding their brains.

But Keys went on to the University of Oregon, where he became one of the top decathletes in the nation – possibly Olympic-caliber, if things had all fallen into place for him. They didn’t, but what he told the students at the banquet – and we really hope they were listening – was that the setbacks he’s experienced taught him to be tough, mentally and physically, and in some ways ended up being blessings in disguise.

He also publicly thanked three Sweet Home High School track coaches – Jim Kistner, Ramiro Santana and Billy Snow – for being “father figures to me” and teaching him “what it means to be a good athlete, a man, a husband and father.”

Obviously, few of our youngsters have the level of talent that Keys has been blessed with, but they can learn the lessons he has.

The school district has taken steps in a number of areas to try to steer youngsters toward bigger and better things through its GEAR-UP and other incentive-laden positive-behavior programs, so don’t get the idea that we’re saying nothing is happening. But more could be done.

Students, of course, can gain life skills and responsibility through regular classes. But most are just as or more likely, we believe, to profit from other activities available through the schools: athletics; clubs ranging from art and chess to forestry and watershed restoration; classes such as music and drama and culinary arts; and volunteer activities that provide opportunities to learn personal discipline and responsibility and develop teamwork and leadership skills.

Unlike a more formal classroom setting, these offer opportunities for more one-on-one mentorship, either from a teacher or other students.

As any teacher can tell us, the task of helping at-risk youngsters is huge. What we see now is the result of years – generations – of decline in our community, and we’ve seen a lot of kids go over the edge into some of the ills mentioned above.

So how does the drug testing policy fit into this? Of course we want to discourage students from engaging in harmful activities, so we certainly hope testing might be an effective deterrent. But we also don’t want it to deter at-risk kids from trying new experiences, of simply giving up and going home to – nothing.

We suggest that what would better serve our local students would be for board members and school officials to find ways to encourage our unfocused, at-risk youngsters to engage in activities that will help them develop into upstanding, responsible citizens who will one day contribute positively to our community – if they aren’t already.

(Editor’s note: Due to space limitations this week, our more detailed report of the sports awards banquet, including Dakotah Keys’ speech, will appear in our June 1 edition.)


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