Article published on Oct. 6, 2012 by the Herald Tribune
NORTH PORT - Melissa Fierro loves to play soccer and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, which is why she will make a talented lawyer someday, her mother figures.
Melissa, a 14-year-old high school freshman, gets good grades and doesn’t get into trouble. She doesn’t do drugs, either, and she proved it this year when she volunteered to be drug tested at school.
Melissa was one of about 140 students — nearly a quarter of the 600 students at her campus — to get tested as part of a popular program at the Imagine charter school in North Port. The drug testing is conducted by D-Fy, or Drug-Free Youth, a local nonprofit initiative spurred by volunteers.
With the blessing of both students and parents, a school official says the drug testing could expand later this year.
Imagine School is looking to drug test students in grades 6 through 10 who play sports or do extracurricular activities like band, said Rudolph Banuelos, the school’s athletic director and dean of students.
“We’re going slowly but we’ll probably make it mandatory for all our sport teams and clubs,” Banuelos said.
The charter school isn’t the only one in the region to drug test.
Manatee County high school athletes and cheerleaders get random mandatory drug tests. Sarasota Military Academy, a charter school in downtown Sarasota, also does some random drug testing.
At Imagine, the voluntary drug tests are popular for a simple reason — goodies.
If the teenagers pass the tests, they get free D-Fy cards that win them discounts at McDonald’s and local businesses plus free membership to the city-run community center.
For parents, it’s peace of mind.
“Sometimes parents are blind. They don’t see what their kids are doing,” said Melissa’s mother, Araceli Pineda, a financial specialist for a nonprofit. “It’s like my daughter says, ‘I don’t have nothing to hide.’ ”
The partnership between D-Fy and Imagine started late last school year, and it is gaining momentum.
D-Fy operates in the Morgan Family Community Center but has permission to go to Imagine School — the only school it goes to — to administer drug tests weekly.
Since April 2011, D-Fy has administered voluntary drug tests, an initiative paid for with private donations.
The nonprofit screens for 11 drugs, including marijuana and alcohol.
About 1,450 young people are members of D-Fy so far, said Monica Becket, vice chairwoman of the North Port Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.
So far, no Imagine students have failed the drug tests, Banuelos said.
Occasionally, some students are surprised when they get called to the nurse’s office, unaware their parents signed them up for the D-Fy program. The school tells the students to go home and talk to their parents about it. In those cases, the majority of students decide not to come back and take the test, he said.
When asked why Imagine works with D-Fy, Banuelos cited drug-free young people tend to do better in school and be more well-rounded.
“We just want to let the community know this is something really important to us,” he said.
In April, the school pushed for what would have been one of the most aggressive drug testing policies in the region. The proposal had called for drug testing of all 6th through 10th-graders before they could be admitted to the school and then random testing as a condition of continued enrollment.
But the Sarasota County School Board denied the request, citing a lack of legal precedent for such widespread testing of students in public schools, including most charter schools.
Once the school starts drug testing students only in extracurricular activities, those who test positive would likely be kicked off the team or club, but not expelled from the charter school, Banuelos said.
About half of the 600 students in the upper campus participate in extracurricular activities.
Banuelos and principal Justin Matthews both stressed the importance of offering counseling to students, if they do test positive.
“We’re all about helping kids, and those kids would be the ones who need that help,” Banuelos said. Not offering counseling, she said, would “be like turning your back on somebody else who tested positive in society.”