Trailblazer Teams Open Doors To Free Player Drug-Testing Program
In today’s world, there is not a parent out there who does not worry about their children getting caught up in the trappings of drugs.
There may be no greater threat to schools and families than that of substance abuse. Millions of Americans of all ages admit to the regular use of illicit drugs, the abuse of alcohol and the misuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. Substance abuse knows no boundaries, be they race, age, religion, education, economic or geographic.
Even kids who get great grades or compete in a sport are still susceptible to the perils of the drug culture.
Oftentimes adults are unsure how to even approach the subject and how to be ensured that the children do not lie when questioned about potential drug use.
But over the last several years, Palm Beach County schools have been able to take advantage of a federally funded pilot program that provides free drug testing for students and student-athletes.
Rather than simply catch and punish guilty drug offenders, this program is instead intended to identify if there is a problem and then help that child with their problem. It is not a punishment program, and neither the police nor the administration is ever even aware of the player’s test results.
For the past three years, several Palm Beach County baseball programs have voluntarily stepped up and participated in the program. With these actions, they have paved the way in setting the example for other schools to also become involved.
The service is provided through NMS Management, and the program is headed by Elaine Taule.
“This is a tool to get kids to say no,” Taule said. “It’s purely an identifying tool to get kids help. No police are called; nothing goes on anyone’s record. I just commend the coaches who provide the program to their students.”
Taule became apart of NMS Management after dealing with the issue first-hand with her own children, who are now grown adults who work in the family business with her.
“It was a benefit to them I was aware and did something about it,” Taule said. “Usually parents are afraid of the consequences for their children. It helps parents that I can relate to them, and many parents just call me for advice and suggestions. They know I have a pure passion for it.”
The credit for being the first to volunteer goes to Palm Beach Gardens and coach Joe Russo, who was actively looking for just such a program for the past five or six years. When NMS Management first introduced itself to the area’s athletic directors, it was the Gators’ Bill Weed who raised his hand to admit he knew the perfect guinea pigs.
“Over the years, I had felt like maybe there had been some kids who got off on the wrong path, and I wondered what they did off the field and did it affect them on the field,” Russo said. “Kids in general have so much opportunity with smoking pot or taking over-the-counter prescriptions.”
The legendary coach just recently celebrated his 400th career coaching victory, and in his experience, he had grown to the opinion over the years that this was something that should be in place. Thankfully the school’s principal, Larry Clawson, agreed with him and the administration helped support them in implementing the program.
“Nowadays, lots of places require a drug test; it is a part of life now,” Russo said. “It could potentially get a kid back on the right path. It’s as simple as that. The school board approved it, it’s free and I feel strongly about it, so why not?”
The way the process works is that Elaine or another representative will visit the school and meet with the athletic director, coaches and parents to explain what to expect and to answer any questions. Oftentimes this has proven to be the most important step of the process, as everyone becomes comfortable with it once they understand how it works.
The players have shown little complaint to the process, and they understand that it is just another opportunity for them to learn how it works in the real world where this will be the norm for college or the workforce.
“The players have been behind it 100 percent since day one,” Russo said. “They like the idea that it gives them the ammunition to tell people they can’t. It takes away any peer pressure.”
The team is tested initially as a group, and then they are given random spot tests during the season. Elaine or another rep will come to practice and randomly select players for spot testing.
If a player does fail a test, the parents are brought in with the school counselor and the player is assessed to see if there is a true problem of addiction. Recommendations are made on how to proceed and the child is expected to participate in more aggressive testing. They continue to practice with the team. They continue to play with the team. They are simply heavily monitored and expected to cooperate and help fix the problem.
While many other schools had inquired about the program with Russo, few others had been able to get it initiated at their school for various reasons. Also participating have been Lake Worth, Glades Central, Suncoast and Seminole Ridge.
“Initially, there was laughter and concern,” Seminole Ridge coach Trent Pendergast said. “Not one person was opposed to it. It’s a great way to avoid peer pressure to say ‘I can’t because I get tested for baseball.’ That’s a big selling point because they can’t excuse their way out of that.”
Pendergast had wanted to get involved for years but had never been able to gain approval. This year, the school welcomed a new principal, and the new administration decided to take a chance and let the Hawks go for it.
“The best part is it has been free, and if a kid fails, there is no punishment. They go to free counseling with their parents,” Pendergast said. “It was the most happy day of coaching I had when my principal approved it. It’s nice to have the support of the administration. We’re doing the right thing and we couldn’t be happier to do it.”
The goal of NMS during its grant period was to help decrease student-athlete drug use by 5 percent, and they were able to meet that goal.
Although every participating program has appreciated the great personalities and delicacy the company provides, it has not been without some minor flaws. For instance, at Suncoast, where the players already carry an exhaustive workload, their practice time is invaluable and it is frustrating to lose that precious practice time in order to take a random test.
“We understand how important it is, but we are trying to have practice,” Suncoast coach B.J. Gilbert joked. “I was happy because no players have ever failed, and it is not as much of an issue at a school like ours where they spend so much time at the books. The players understand this is a part of college life and they want to be a part of that life.”
The program ends after this year now that its grant has run its course. But the company continues to explore other grant opportunities, and the community can also help to initiate other free counseling services.
“We are keeping our eyes open for other grants and funding options,” Taule said. “Other schools in other states have also expressed interest in what we do. I just thank and commend the coaches here in Palm Beach. They have been real trailblazers.”