Student athletes at Olentangy high schools who test positive for drugs, tobacco or alcohol will face harsher punishments beginning this school year.

Student athletes at Olentangy high schools who test positive for drugs, tobacco or alcohol will face harsher punishments beginning this school year.

At its June 18 meeting, the Olentangy school board approved changes to the 2013-14 athletic handbook that include increasing the number of games for which students will be suspended if they test positive.

A first offense now will carry a punishment of a half-season suspension. The student can reduce the punishment to missing 25 percent of contests if he or she agrees to take part in a follow-up program and evaluation process.

Previously, athletes who were found to have drugs, alcohol or tobacco in their systems were suspended for 25 percent of contests, and that could be whittled down to 10 percent if they joined the follow-up program.

"Kids are willing to give up two games to use, so we're recommending something that's a little stricter," said Mark Raiff, Olentangy's chief academic officer.

During the 2012-13 school year, the high schools implemented random drug-testing for student athletes for the first time. The change was made to ensure the district was achieving authentic results, district leaders said.

"We changed the testing to random instead of at the beginning of the season, because it came to our attention that because students knew when they were going to be tested, they would stop using just in time to test positive," Raiff said.

Each week, 50 students are selected at random to take part in the urine tests. According to district data, 1,441 students were tested last school year. Of that total, 22 were disciplined for positive results. Seven of those students also failed a follow-up test.

Orange High School tests netted the most positive results of any school with 16. Liberty High School reported seven positive tests and Olentangy High School reported six.

Refusing to take a test is treated as a positive reading, said Jeff Gordon, the district's director of business and facilities.

Once students test positive, they are required to take tests for the next five weeks so school officials can verify that their substance levels are gradually decreasing.

Overall, the district has a positive testing rate of 2 percent. That number is lower than the national average of 2.5 percent, but is higher than the Ohio average of 1.33 percent and the district's 2010-11 positive rate, which was 0.44 percent.

Gordon also presented the board with statistics from the 15 canine searches that were completed at the district's three high schools and five middle schools between Sept. 20, 2012, and May 17.

During the searches, dogs are set loose in the schools' parking lots and hallways to detect illegal drugs. Nothing was found during any of the searches, officials said.

To aid in combating the rising rates of substance use, the board at its June 18 meeting also approved contracts for two new school resource officers.

During a February public forum, parents said they'd like officers in every school, but because of financial constraints, only the high schools are guaranteed to have officers present, Superintendent Wade Lucas said.

Raiff said the district also is considering joining a county task force that's currently in the development stages. The task force would partner county agencies with school leaders to build awareness and create programs to discourage alcohol, tobacco and drug use among students.

Board member Adam White voted against the handbook updates and abstained from voting to hire two school resource officers.

He questioned why a minimum grade-point average that's the equivalent of a D letter grade isn't changed in the athletic handbook, but a provision punishing students who, he said, "might have a cigar with their dad over the weekend and that's it" would be added.

"I believe 50 tests each week are excessive," White said after the meeting. "The focus of public education should be educating the students, and I think that we're losing focus in favor of an intense focus on tobacco (and) drug testing."

Lucas disagreed with White, explaining why he thinks drug-testing has its place in schools.

"(Drug-testing) is not here to say 'I got you,' " Lucas said. "It's meant to show that we're here to educate our staff, kids and parents to make positive life choices."