N.J. prep athletes to face random steroid testing

WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- High school athletes whose teams qualify for championship games will face random testing for steroids under a first-in-the nation plan issued Tuesday by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey.

The testing plan, which will take effect with the start of the 2006 school year, represents a one-strike-and-you're out policy for individual athletes, but their teams would still be eligible to play in the championships without them.

Codey, who will leave office next month, said he'd like to see random testing for steroids and other drugs extended to all students -- not just those on sports teams -- within two to three years.

"We've all seen the statistics and read the articles about the impact that steroids are having on kids," Codey said during a ceremony at Seton Hall Preparatory Academy, whose headmaster, Monsignor Michael Kelly, headed a state task force on steroid use and prevention. "This is a growing health threat, one we can't leave up to individual parents, coaches or schools to handle."

In signing an executive order requiring the testing, Codey cited statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found 3.4 percent of all high school seniors nationwide admitted to using steroids at least once last year. Among 8th graders, that figure was nearly 2 percent.

Under the plan, whose details will be finalized by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, students who test positive for steroids would be barred from playing in championship games, and could face a year-long ban from school athletics.

Codey said he recommended restricting the testing to athletes preparing for championship games as a pilot program to see how well the program works. If it proves successful, he said, it could be expanded to regular-season athletics and even students who do not participate in extracurricular athletics.

New Jersey's drug-testing initiative would be the first of its kind for a state, according to Gary Makowicki, an athletic director at a Norwich, Conn., school who serves as executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.

"You've seen some initiatives from some individual schools, but I've never seen anything like this," Makowicki said.

He said one of the biggest issues with preventing student-athlete drug use is that coaches often don't know whether or not it is really a problem at their schools.

"The idea of testing is becoming more popular," he said.

The program will cost about $50,000, to be paid by the state, Codey said.

His executive order also requires the state to come up with educational programs about the dangers of steroid use, and to implement them starting in fifth grade.

The governor also directed state health officials to come up with a program to test commonly available over-the-counter nutritional supplements for steroids or steroid precursors.

Peter King, who covers the National Football League for Sports Illustrated, served on the task force and wrote its forward, in which he termed steroid use among high school athletes "a secret society."

"There's one thing out there that should keep them from even thinking of using steroids and that's the disgrace of a positive test on the eve of a championship event," he said.

Lisa Brady, superintendent of the South Hunterdon Regional High School, which subjects all its students to random drug testing, said such tests help students stand up to fierce peer pressure to use illegal substances.

"Random drug testing gives our kids a reason to say no," she said.

Although Codey would like to see the testing plan expanded, that decision will be up to his successor, Gov.-elect Jon Corzine. A message seeking comment left at Corzine's transition headquarters was not immediately returned.