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Impaired judgment

In most school systems, policy is set the old-fashioned way--by an elected board, responding to a perceived need. Consulting with administrators, the board gathers all available information on a given proposal and, after suitable public comment, renders a decision.

But in Wake County, a dramatic policy change on drug testing started--and almost finished--with a sales pitch by a contractor for a security outfit with a special line on some federal cash.

The seed of Wake's policy shift was planted in Washington, in a congressional vote last year to approve a routine appropriations bill. Such measures rarely command public attention beyond the big-ticket items measured in billions. But stuffed inside this particular bill was a relatively puny line item, about $400,000 a year for a two-year "pilot program" to test drug-detection aerosol sprays. Not just any sprays, but sprays produced by the Mistral Group, a security company based in Bethesda, Md.

Mistral products had already gained acceptance with the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service, which found them useful in their interdiction efforts. Sensitive and fast-acting, the aerosols--with such catchy brand names as Cannabispray, Coca-Test and Barbitu-Sol--comprise but a small slice of Mistral's security line, which includes bomb-proof trashcans, forensic field kits and other devices for law enforcement. Pretty lightweight stuff compared with some of the company's other ventures, in particular the international marketing and sales of artillery, mortars, military armor and other high-tech defense equipment.

The principals of Mistral, most of whom have worked for the military or major defense contractors, have plenty of experience in "government procurement"--tapping into the many pots of federal tax dollars that sit like fish in a barrel for those who know how to bait the hook. Though details are sketchy, it appears that someone who knew someone arranged for the Mistral-specific pilot project to be inserted into a bill, which was then passed by legislators who probably had no idea it was there.

With that, Mistral's drug sprays gained a new potential market: the nation's public schools. The company hired Charles Griffiths, an affable government relations specialist, to find school systems willing to participate in the project. Griffiths milked old contacts for suggestions, and after rejections in Minnesota and elsewhere, he eventually found four systems in New Jersey that began using the products free-of-charge in January.

Now, for those who might envision teachers and administrators roaming the hallways and spritzing students with Cannabispray, Griffiths offers this assurance: "Our entire emphasis [in the pilot project] is on prevention--it's not on apprehension." Instead, he says, the objective is to gather information, to find out what substances students may be using, and where. In New Jersey, sprays are applied to bathroom sinks, lockers and other surfaces that may have been in contact with controlled substances. "That's all done before school, after school, or at least when kids are out of sight," he says. Embracing the covert spirit, the school systems asked that their participation be kept secret. It stayed secret--until Wake County officials inadvertently let the cat out of the bag, setting off a furor in the New Jersey school districts. After it came out, one of them dropped out of the program.

Despite that, Griffiths says the testing has been a success so far. Traces of various drugs have indeed been found in all four school systems, including cocaine and heroin. And, of course, the weed. "The one drug everyone expects us to find is marijuana," he says. "We've found that in virtually every school."

Despite Mistral's best advice, however, some schools have used the sprays to test students. "We're not trying to nail students," Griffiths says, "though we understand that may happen if the occasion arises."

The occasion may soon be arising close by. Last spring, Griffiths was told by a higher-up to recruit a new potential client--the Wake County schools. He called Superintendent Bill McNeal, who passed him to security chief Corey Duber. On April 10, Griffiths flew to Raleigh and pitched Duber, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent. After checking references in New Jersey and presenting it at a principals meeting--"all of them wanted to be a part of it," Duber says--he made the decision to move forward.

In late summer, the county issued its annual back-to-school media kit. Included in the security update was a mention of the new pilot project. Every middle and high school in Wake County will receive test kits, the news release noted, which "will enable administrators to determine if illegal substances have been on surfaces such as hands and book bags." Duber is then quoted: "If a student comes into school with the odor of marijuana on him, we'll be able to rub his hands with litmus paper and then spray it and be able to determine if the student really was smoking marijuana."

The News & Observer reported the story, wrote a cautionary editorial and published a skeptical column that took a couple of swipes at Duber. Other media followed suit. Students at Wake County schools are not currently subject to drug testing unless an actual substance is found in their possession, and the administration seemed to have implemented a policy change without approval of the school board, contrary to system rules.

Duber insists that the press accounts were blown out of proportion. Testing of students would be a rare event, and then only in conjunction with other evidence, such as if a student is staggering around the classroom or reeks of dope. "The biggest misconception of this whole trial is that we're gonna be running around with cans of spray, which is absurd," he says.

Moreover, Duber says, the project is not yet firmly in place and will be reviewed by district advisory committees before being put to a board vote. Board members, who learned of the program via the press and later asked administrators for clarification, echo that message. "Nothing's been decided," says board member Patti Head.

But that's not Griffiths' understanding. An orientation and training session in Raleigh is scheduled Oct. 23, and he fully expects to be there. "From what I understand," he says, "it has been agreed that they will participate in the research project."

Duber acknowledges that he may have fueled that impression: "I led him to believe that unless something totally wacky happens, that that would be the case."

Griffiths also was under the impression that that the school board already had approved the plan. In New Jersey, he says, the school systems discussed and OKed the program before proceeding, and he thought the same was true in Wake County. "I was told board members were fully aware of this program," he says.

Perhaps none of this really matters, now that the issue will get a full public airing. On the other hand, "full" may not amount to much--an open records request yielded not a single piece of paper about the program, Mistral Group, the sprays, Wake's implementation, or anything else related to the proposed pilot project. "Anything I've done with [Mistral] has been verbally so far," says Duber (though Griffiths says he sent a two-page brochure months ago).

The board will have a tough decision. From an informational standpoint, the sprays won't yield much beyond what any parent already knows. Their limitations, including reported false positives, require other tests for confirmation. Herosol may detect tiny amounts of heroin, but Mistral has no spray to sniff out many of the designer drugs that are much more common among the nation's youth. In the end, the best use of the aerosols is to determine where and by whom drugs are consumed and, ultimately, bust people.

If that's the angle, it may be an easy sell. Despite the alarmist press coverage, "The public outcry has been none," says Duber. "We've had less than 10 phone calls. The only people who seem to care are the media."

One question has not yet been part of the dialogue: Does Wake County have a perceived drug problem that might argue for increased surveillance or a testing policy change? The answer appears to be no--the school system has done no analysis on which to base an educated guess, but administrators suspect not. "They told me they really don't believe they have much of a problem down there," confirms Griffiths.

So the (proposed) policy change was driven not in reaction to a problem, but by a simple cold-call and sales job. If that's all it takes, Mistral should have no problem getting its products implanted in school systems nationwide. One New Jersey school system has pulled out of the program, but Griffiths has added one in Virginia and is working on a deal in Mississippi. And though the federal funding ends before the 2003-04 school year, he hopes to get it extended, opening up additional possibilities in other states.

Of course, selling the products will prove a little tougher once schools actually have to pay for them. If successful, though, the sprays could rival Mistral's artillery division as a profit center. That's where the pilot project comes in. From Mistral's standpoint, it doesn't really matter whether the schools gather data from sinks or test kids as they get off the bus, as long as Cannabispray becomes part of their routine. At least at this point, Wake County seems perfectly willing to oblige. EndBlock

Friends, foes and whistle blowers can contact Bob Burtman at burt man@indyweek.com

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