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County school officials, students back drug testing of prep athletes

Joe Buccheri believes in second chances.

In 25 years as a coach and educator, Buccheri has seen teenagers turn their lives around after straying down the wrong path. All they needed was a little help.

That's why he also believes that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday declaring it constitutional to test athletes in public schools for drugs is a strong move in the right direction.

"As a coach, an educator, and as a parent, I think we should be doing what's best for the children, and I think testing comes under that heading," said Buccheri, a guidance counselor and baseball coach at Crystal River High School. "I think we should find the kids with problems and try to help them."

Of more than a half-dozen coaches, athletes, administrators and elected officials in the Citrus County school system contacted Monday and Tuesday, none was opposed to the testing.

"I think it's a great step forward," Lecanto basketball coach Chris Nichols said. "I've thought for a long time they should be able to test athletes for drugs. This way we may be able to catch a kid when they're in the early stages of experimentation and do something for them, get them counseling or rehabilitation and help them turn their lives around."

Those opposed to the testing call it an invasion of students' privacy. The case reached the Supreme Court from Oregon, where the parents of a 12-year-old football player challenged the constitutionality of testing required by the local district to participate in sports.

But in its 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said privacy must occasionally be sacrificed to the war on drugs.

Lecanto's Adam Spate concurs.

"I think it's a great idea," said Spate, a two-time state champion in the 1,600-meter run and a member of the state-championship cross country team.

"I have no problem with it whatsoever," he said. "Some might think of it as an invasion of privacy, but I don't see what the big deal is. If a person has nothing to hide, why should they mind?"

The ruling does not require schools to conduct such tests, merely allows for the legal possibility. Incoming Citrus County superintendent James Hughes, who officially takes over July 1 for retiring superintendent Carl Austin, said the topic would require plenty of discussion at the local level.

"We've always taken a very strong stance on drugs in Citrus County and have worked hard to educate the students on their dangers," Hughes said. "We don't want drugs in our schools or any of our students using them.

"Whether we'd implement a drug testing policy needs to be looked at carefully," he said. "I'd need to sit down and read the decision, then talk with the school board, the principals, and our lawyers before we did anything."

Cost was prohibitive when the Florida High School Activities Association _ the governing body for middle school and high school interscholastic sports in the state _ investigated six years ago the possibility of testing athletes in the playoffs. The estimate received then was between $100 and $125 per player to test for steroids and drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

Expense, however, would not be the only issue in implementing such a procedure.

"I have mixed emotions," said veteran school board member David Watson, looking beyond the law's intent to its application. "There are other things to consider such as the expense, the legal definition of random, who is going to do the testing, if it's done at the schools who is going to transport the samples to the lab."

Still, he likes the idea of curtailing drug abuse.

"I don't think it will do anything about the hard users," Watson said, "but it could help the borderline students. That would be good."

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