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States face hurdles testing students for steroids

/ Source: The Associated Press

They were thinking big in New Mexico. Encouraged by the Drug Enforcement Agency, state officials staged a national summit to discuss solutions for the growing problem of steroids in high school sports.

The governor pledged $330,000 to start a testing program. He created a steroid task force.

A few months later, the task force decided “that implementing a steroid testing program ... would be costly, would most likely result in legality issues and would have difficulty passing in the state legislature,” Robert Zayas of the New Mexico Activities Association said.

Different versions of that story are being told around the nation.

An AP analysis of the 50 states found that Texas, Florida and New Jersey are the only three whose legislatures have mandated some kind of steroid testing for high-school athletes.

Steroids-in-schools laws

California and Michigan also have passed steroids-in-schools laws, and a handful of others have statutes on the books that forbid performance-enhancing drugs, though none of those laws has the teeth to mandate testing.

Few other states have found traction for such legislation. Budgetary, logistical and political difficulties have left the burden of starting these programs with state athletic associations and local school districts, and those jurisdictions are dealing with the same problems.

“In some districts it would be very difficult to have a statewide plan or a uniform program for everyone,” said Bob Baldridge of the Tennessee athletic association, responding to an AP questionnaire about steroid testing in the 50 states. “In Tennessee it would not be impossible to do, but, honestly, very difficult. Nashville is closer to Canada than Memphis is to Mt. City, Tenn.”

Baldridge’s response was common, as were responses from state athletic associations that have looked at comprehensive testing programs and found them too costly. Most steroids tests cost between $100 and $175 to administer, which may not sound like much. But multiply it by 100 or 1,000 and it’s obvious that it’s not an expense most school districts can afford.

“Steroid use is very serious and we don’t condone it any way, but there’s cost and legal issues,” said Keith Amemiya, executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association “And there are a lot of other drugs we’re concerned about as well.”

Such conclusions are disappointing to Don Hooton, whose 17-year-old son, Taylor, committed suicide in 2003. Doctors believe Taylor Hooton became depressed after he stopped using steroids. Since Taylor’s death, Hooton has been traveling the country trying to goad state legislatures into mandating steroid testing.

In pushing for the Texas bill, he became a believer that the problem must be solved through the lawmaking process.

“What we learned is if we had to rely on individual school districts or the state athletic association to do it, we might have done it, but it would’ve been a very hard road,” Hooton said.

He said once the Texas legislature came to grips with the money issue, all the other roadblocks dissolved more easily.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, which is increasing its presence in the research and education side of the fight against steroids in sports, also is interested in seeing more done at the high school level.

‘A societal problem’

“The high-school athletic associations and the legislatures are absolutely doing the right thing by taking a serious look at this problem,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said. “The reported rates of steroid use at the high-school level are not only alarming, they reveal the extent to which this is becoming a societal problem.”

In one recent national survey, 1.8 percent of high-school seniors admitted to having taken steroids at least once in the past year. In a survey in West Virginia, 3.4 percent of high-school students said they had used steroids, while many surveys done over the last decade in Texas — where high-school football is king — showed even higher numbers.

Governors in Florida and Texas recently signed their laws, which will take effect in the upcoming school year.

The Texas law will create the most expansive testing in the country, with about $3 million being allotted to test “a statistically significant sample” of students. The high-school association will determine penalties for positive tests. Before the law, about 130 of Texas’ 1,300 public high schools had their own steroid-testing programs.

The Florida law calls for a one-year pilot program in which 1 percent of athletes in football, baseball and weightlifting will take tests; the legislation included $100,000 for the testing. Violators will be suspended from their teams.

In New Jersey, where the testing began last fall, the 150 random tests made public didn’t produce any positive results. The cost was split between the state sports association and state government.

In other states, efforts are in place, though none include mandatory testing.

Educational program preferred

In Oregon, the activities association supports an educational program called Atlas and Athena over a testing program.

“We can educate at least 15 kids through Atlas & Athena for what it costs to conduct a single steroids test,” OSAA executive director Tom Welter said.

In California, the athletics association recently voted to require parents, players and school officials to sign contracts promising that athletes won’t use steroids and to require coaches to earn a certification that includes steroids-abuse education.

That came around the time Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning high school athletes from using some nutritional supplements. But there is no mandatory testing.

In Illinois, the activities association’s board of directors approved development of a testing program and is expected to present its recommendation for a program at its September meeting.

Many are curious to see how the state with the country’s fourth-largest high school participation handles the issue. The Illinois legislature has a tradition of letting the activities association govern itself.

The conversation in Illinois, however, is the same as it is in many states, large and small.

“The sticking point thus far will be how we will fund testing if we decide to move forward with it,” said Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the Illinois association.

Hooton urges state legislators to find the money.

“Just in the bottom of my heart, I don’t believe any program can be effective unless it’s backed up with a testing program,” he said. “By itself, it forces conversations around the dinner table at home. It forces coaches who should have, but may have never talked to kids about the subject, to have conversations.”