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August 1, 2007
Vol. 49
No. 8

School's Newest Test: Steroids

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Educators and researchers are concerned about leveling the playing field for all students.
When the mass media touts a car or some electronic gadget as being "on steroids," everyone quickly gets the idea that the product is bigger, better, and perhaps a little bit "badder" than the ordinary version. In fact, that tagline is part of the culture that surrounds today's students, says sports medicine researcher Linn Goldberg (interview, May 2007). For 20 years, he's studied how high school athletes abuse anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
In a society where pro athletes on steroids rarely get criminally prosecuted for possession of these illegal drugs, students are given mixed messages. Young people get the sense that these powerful sports figures have "made it"—and steroids seems to be an implicit, if illicit, part of the success, Goldberg suggests.
The popular understanding of steroid use, however, doesn't include discussions "about getting heart disease, severe acne, hair loss, or shrunken testicles," Goldberg points out. "These negative images that actually speak to the truth are few and far between."
In highly competitive high school sports, many students ignore the problems of steroids and "focus on the performance" benefits. But changes may be coming soon to show that state lawmakers are serious about rooting out steroid use among students.

Legislating for Fitness

Concern over illegal use of steroids by student athletes in Texas, Florida, and other states is prompting lawmakers to mandate drug tests for those participating in school sports and other extracurricular activities.
The University of Michigan annually surveys drug and alcohol use by secondary school students across the nation. U of M's Monitoring the Future Study for 2006 shows that about 2.7 percent of 12th grade students have used steroids (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2006). Although this is a slight up-tick in usage from the previous year, it is significantly lower than the peak of 2002, when 4 percent of senior students said they had used steroids.
Reported use of steroids in individual school districts was nearly twice as high as the national average just about the time when the Major League Baseball (MLB) scandal erupted. During Congressional hearings in 2005, several star ballplayers denied, under oath, using steroids. The ensuing public backlash over alleged MLB steroid use prompted many schools to begin drug education efforts.

Testing for Texas Teens

While some school districts around the country already test for drug use, a recent Texas proposal would mandate the largest school drug-testing program in the United States. Texas has more high school athletes than any other state—about 724,000—and the drive for an extensive steroid-testing program has been prompted by recent high-profile cases of steroid use. In one instance, high school baseball player Taylor Hooten took his own life during a depression related to steroid use, says his father Don, who has become a national advocate for preventing students from using performance-enhancing drugs.
In another case widely reported in the Texas media in 2005, nine high school football players at Colleyville Heritage High School, located in an affluent Dallas suburb, admitted to using steroids. In response, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District implemented a program of random-testing students for a variety of drugs, including steroids. Parents whose children are involved in any extracurricular activities must also take an online drug education course and assessment. In the course, parents learn about illicit drugs, how students typically get them, and what behaviors might alert families that their children could be abusing drugs.
The Texas School Survey of Drug and Alcohol Use, taken in 2006, showed that overall drug use among students in the Grapevine-Colleyville district declined since the 2004 survey. Of the 30 students screened for steroids through the district program, none were positive, according to press reports.
The Texas plan calls for testing less than 3 percent of Texas student athletes and requires coaches to undergo training to learn about the dangers of steroid use. Students found positive for steroids could be suspended from playing sports, but specific penalties have yet to be set by the University Interscholastic League, which will oversee the program.
"I don't know that steroid use is an epidemic," says D.W. Rutledge, executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association (interview, May 2007). "We're hoping that the testing program will give us some answers. If steroid use is widespread, then we'll make stronger efforts in [prevention]."
Rutledge dismisses the notion that any coaches in the highly competitive high school football environment of Texas might "look the other way" when it comes to their athletes experimenting with steroids.
"The vast majority educate their kids about the dangers of steroids," Rutledge says. "Alcohol and recreational drugs like marijuana and cocaine are a lot more of a concern for us as coaches."

Striking a New Balance

Instead of mandatory testing, sports medicine researcher Goldberg advocates using research-proven drug education programs. Gender specific and peer taught within a team, these programs involve coaches and teach students useful information about how the adolescent body develops and the impact of nutrition and strength training.
Goldberg, who has studied the results of random drug testing on students, says "mandatory drug testing works very weakly." He and fellow researcher Diane Elliot developed the Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (ATLAS) program for boys and the Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives (ATHENA) program for girls. Both are research driven and designed to address all drug use; indeed, research shows that steroid use is linked to the abuse of other drugs and alcohol.
With the help of corporate sponsors, the ATLAS and ATHENA programs are making inroads in several schools. For the past year, Sports Illustrated magazine has sponsored ATLAS and ATHENA in 31 high schools (ATLAS and ATHENA, n.d.). In the upcoming school year, the National Football League plans to sponsor the programs in 40 schools in different parts of the country. The programs impartially lay out the potential risks and perceived benefits of steroid use, rather than dwelling only on the negative, Goldberg says. "What we found from our previous research is that ‘scare tactics’ produce an effect wherein young athletes are more likely to want to use steroids."
Both ATLAS and ATHENA show students how to balance their individual programs with sports nutrition and strength training.
"It's experiential learning, not a lecture format," Goldberg says. "Students in either program, for instance, make use of role-playing activities and also create public service messages—using the knowledge they've gained—for other students in the school."

ATLAS and ATHENA. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2007, from

Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2006, December 21). The monitoring the future study, Table 1: Trends in lifetime prevalence of use of various drugs for eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders." Retrieved May 28, 2007, from

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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