The policy will go into effect this fall, but some parts of the program, such as an improved method for students to refer their classmates for potential drug and alcohol counseling, may not be implemented until winter, district officials said.

In a close vote, the Ashland School Board on Monday approved a stricter drug and alcohol policy for athletes at Ashland High School that includes mandatory meetings for parents and voluntary drug testing for students.

The board voted 3-2 to approve the new policy, drafted by a committee of parents, coaches and district officials.

The policy will go into effect this fall, but some parts of the program, such as an improved method for students to refer their classmates for potential drug and alcohol counseling, may not be implemented until winter, district officials said. Other parts of the policy, including the drug testing and a drug-and-alcohol-free club, will be available to students if they want to participate but will not be mandatory.

Board Vice Chairwoman Heidi Parker and board member Ruth Alexander voted against the policy because they were concerned the referral system and drug testing could be abused or could violate students' rights.

"We are legally responsible," Parker said. "I think we should choose which areas to implement."

Board Chairwoman Carol Davis expressed concern over parts of the policy, but ultimately voted in favor of it.

The new policy was drafted in response to growing concerns about drug and alcohol use among athletes at the high school, said Mark Yaconelli, a community member on the committee.

"It seems like to me this school has crossed a tipping point in terms of drug or alcohol use," he said. "We heard about high rates of drug use among successful athletes and successful students. It seems like it's pervasive now."

Students sometimes use drugs and alcohol before games, putting them at greater risk for injuries, especially in contact sports such as football, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said.

Alcohol and marijuana are the drugs used most frequently by students, said Samuel Bogdanove, the district's director of student services, who helped lead the committee.

"To make a change in usage is going to mean making a different set of expectations," he said.

Yaconelli said students and researchers told the committee that many athletes use marijuana and alcohol because a high number of Ashland parents permit it.

"What we heard is that a lot of times there are safe houses where drugs are used and parents allow it," he said. "This is the place where we need to have an impact. The first thing (recent graduates) said was the parents are the root of the problem."

Administrators are hoping the required education night will persuade parents not to allow their students to use drugs. Parents of athletes will be required to attend an initial meeting this fall or spring, and an additional meeting every two years, for as long as their children play sports. Students whose parents can't attend the meetings can elect to have another adult, such as a coach or counselor, attend and sponsor them.

"I think what we need to say to parents is, 'Regardless of your own beliefs or behavior, we need you to support us,' because we're not going to judge parents," said board member Eva Skuratowicz, who served on the committee.

The new policy will bring greater attention to a pledge card all athletes and parents must sign, stating they will abide by the school's drug and alcohol policy. Parents must pledge not to allow students to use drugs, including tobacco, in their homes.

The new policy includes seven items: the parent and athlete education night, the pledge card, the drug-and-alcohol-free club, informational panels for athletes, the promotion of drug-free social activities, increased classroom instruction on making healthy choices and the student referral system.

The board voted to approve all but the last item Monday. Board members plan to review and clarify language regarding the referral system at a future meeting.

Students who join the drug-and-alcohol-free club will be able to sign up for drug testing, funded by community donations. Club members who stay drug and alcohol free will be given discount cards for local businesses.

Last fall, football coach Charlie Hall asked the School Board to allow him to perform voluntary, random drug tests on his team every week in the hopes of curbing marijuana and alcohol use among players.

The board voted 5-0 in September to table the matter because it was concerned about the confidentiality and accuracy of the test results. Board members also said the district needed to work with students to change the culture of the school rather than impose a testing program.

The district decided to form a committee to study the issue, because many parents are worried about the high rate of drug and alcohol use at the high school, Di Chiro said.

Hall sought the drug testing after two players were caught with drugs off campus last summer, before the season started. He gave the players a two-game suspension. If they had been caught on campus, they would have been suspended from one-third of the season — which would have hurt the entire team, Hall said.

A state survey released in October showed alcohol and marijuana use increased among Ashland High School students in the previous two years.

The Oregon Healthy Teens Survey revealed that a higher percentage of Ashland middle and high school students use alcohol and marijuana than students do statewide.

The survey was administered in spring 2009 to eighth- and 11th-grade students, who answered anonymously.

According to the data, 49 percent of Ashland 11th-grade students had used alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to 38 percent statewide. About 40 percent had used marijuana in the past 30 days, compared to 22 percent statewide.

Yaconelli said he hopes the high school's new policy will help change student attitudes about drugs.

"We hope that with this set of activities, there might be some kind of cultural shift," he said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.