A weekend interview with Justin Matthews, Imagine School at North Port principal
News that a Sarasota County charter school is looking into mandatory drug testing for its students sparked conversations across Florida, with the primary questions on many peoples' lips being, "Can they do that?" and, "Why would they want to?" We turned to Justin Matthews, the school's principal, for some explanations. Matthews clarified that the idea, still in its infancy, is not designed as a way to screen students out of the Imagine School at North Port, but rather to help children who might be in trouble. He also contended that starting such a program shouldn't pose a problem, as at least two other schools he knows of do exactly the same thing. Matthews, who previously was chairman of the board for Imagine School at St. Petersburg, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek.
Where did you come up with this idea for drug testing students?
The city of North Port, in which our school is located, about two years ago came up with a drug-free youth initiative, they call it D-Fy -- Drug-Free Youth of North Port. It's a voluntary program for any middle or high school student in our community. They enroll in an annualized drug testing program. In return they receive free access to all the parks and rec facilities, as well as some other incentives. We've been involved with D-Fy for only a year, and we already have over 10 percent of our current student population at the junior high level and above already voluntarily enrolled in this program. So it's gotten some pretty strong community support. And I have contacts in Sarasota Military Academy, which has a current unilateral drug testing procedure for their students. And Indian River Charter High School, I am friendly with the governance board member who wrote the original brief for their drug testing program in that school as part of their original application. That's when I decided to make contact with the [Sarasota] district and just inquire about the possibility of pursuing a change to the school's enrollment procedures to include an an annualized drug testing program.
I've heard some people, including a couple of lawmakers, have raised questions about whether this is something you could do, constitutionally. Have you explored that issue yet?
Well, absolutely. As I referenced before, you have examples currently in the state of Florida of charter high schools that are currently drug testing all of their students. So from a constitutional standpoint, it seems like there are already precedents here in the state for this exact procedure.
And you would make their enrollment in the school predicated upon a clean result?
No. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that this is at the conceptual level. The goal for the drug-free youth initiative is really one of early intervention, counseling and support. And so the goal of this is that upon an initial positive drug test, the first thing that the school would do would be to provide counseling and support to the students and their parents, from an early intervention standpoint. It's not meant to screen students from enrolling in the school, or to be punitive in any fashion. It's really designed to provide an early intervention approach.
Did you have problems in the school that made you think of this? Or was it solely a part of that other program?
I want to be crystal clear on this. In the school's four-year history, we have had zero incidents of drugs on campus. I do not believe any other school in this area can say that in their history they've yet to have a single on-campus drug incident. This is a completely pro-active idea designed to model that we can ask for a higher level of safety for our students in our community and also provide support to parents who have a tough job. Any additional support we can provide to them through a procedure such as this, give them extra assurance, give students a solid footing in which to decline peer pressure when that arises, I think it's good for kids.
Do you think this would make the school more attractive to families that are looking for a school choice? Or do you think it might make some parents think twice before coming?
Our current school community and local community leaders over the last 48 hours, when the story broke from the inquiry e-mail that I sent and the subsequent conversation with the school board, has been nearly unanimous and overwhelming in favor of this program for our students. Our school is currently at maximum capacity and has a waiting list of several hundred students. And it is a school of choice. And keeping in mind that parents can choose to come to our school, or they can choose to go to a different school, that does empower the parents to decide if this is something they want for their child and they feel like this is a value, or if they don't they can choose not to enroll in our school. ...
Have you done anything else in this regard, like drug dogs in the school?
Absolutely not. There is no need in our school currently to do any of those types of reactive measures. Because we don't have a problem. Yet if you look at community statistics and recent statistics from the state of Florida related to youth experimentation and usage of drugs, it's significant. And as a community leader and educator and someone who cares about kids, it's really incumbent upon us to come up with creative options that we may have in order to support our students and make sure they make it through middle and high school, and give them the best opportunity to be successful. If there is an occurrence where a child unfortunately gets mixed up with drugs, then, early intervention and support for that student, what more could you ask for?
So would this be something that would happen more than once in your vision? If you take the test at the beginning of the year and then something happens mid-year, you wouldn't know otherwise.
Well, I mean, again, this is more of an idea, a concept. My vision would be an annualized screen, and if the child is negative they would be subject to potentially random through the year type of scenario. But if a child does yield a positive screen, then the first thing the school would do would be to enact the counseling and support structure for the family and really try to help the child and the family combat the issue with drugs. We would absolutely be there for the family. And that child would be subject to more testing, certainly, to see if the counseling was effective or not. I could see after repeated multiple failed tests and no response through counseling and support and help that the child would be eligible for expulsion.
When do you see this taking effect?
At this point in time, we are building our consensus and support for this, and we're looking at a way to frame it that would certainly not infringe on anyone's civil liberties. That would be the last thing we would want to do. And really structuring a way that is legal, moral, ethical and in support of our students, then approach the district with a defensible procedure that is well vetted in current policy that is around the state of Florida. We will go from there.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this. I look forward to see where this goes from here.
It is my sincere pleasure. Again, it is very important to me as school principal, and we are very proud of our school, that this is a proactive measure and again, I understand it's a polarizing issue any time you take about unilateral testing. Our intent is certainly not to infringe upon anyone's civil liberties. We are just trying to do everything we can in support of our students and community. This seems to be at the grassroots level something that parents are extremely in favor of and would provide a superior level of safety and feelings of security. And the students are actually in favor of this as well.
What about students that really want to come there and like your school, but don't want to do this? Could they opt out?
I could certainly see particularly for students that are currently enrolled at the school, for them to have a grandfather clause and really allow our current students, who really did not enroll under any notion of annualized drug testing in our junior high school and high school, I could certainly see that piece. As far as including an opt out clause in the policy, again, it's at a conceptual level. I'd like to see 100 percent participation. Even if it's 100 percent voluntary participation through the local drug-free youth initiative here in North Port. It's the idea of the safety and security it provides to our kids that's the most important. Not the unilateral nature or the controlling nature of this that a vocal minority are speaking about right now.