One of the largest school districts in the U.S. is making a bold move to combat doping in high school sports.
Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Schools announced last week a pilot program to test student-athletes for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. The district is the fourth largest in the U.S., serving more than 340,000 students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
"We are very concerned about the use of these illegal drugs," says Marcos Moran, assistant superintendent of school operations in the district. He says the district anticipates testing approximately 250-300 student-athletes at the high school level through the program, set to begin this coming school year.
But students are not typically checked for performance-enhancing drugs.
"There are school districts that do conduct limited drug testing, but in terms of nationally, it's not very common," says Annie Skinner, spokeswoman for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which manages drug testing for the U.S. Olympic teams.
A typical drug panel tests for marijuana, amphetamines, opioids, cocaine and PCP, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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But new data shows that high schoolers are increasingly using performance-enhancing drugs.
Use of synthetic human growth hormone among high school students more than doubled over the past year, from 5 to 11 percent, according to a survey released last month by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. The same survey found that use of steroids among teens increased from 5 to 7 percent.
"I think some of it is certainly athletic performance," says Sean Clarkin, director of programs at the Partnership For Drug-Free Kids, on why teens are increasingly using performance-enhancing drugs. "But I think a lot of it is appearance and weight loss. I think there are a variety of different reasons why kids are using this stuff."
Synthetic human growth hormone is only available legally with a prescription, and Clarkin says that many teens may be consuming substances that they think contain synthetic HGH, but in reality do not.
Regardless of why high schoolers are using these drugs, they can have serious side effects. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart problems, psychiatric disorders and halted growth and development are among the side effects of using performance-enhancing drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"I think that it is a challenge, certainly to fight the external pressures that students face, and we know that, really, kids do face those pressures," says Skinner. "There's the pressure to make the high school team. There's the pressure to do the best you can in high school to get that college scholarship and so the pressures on young athletes are very intense."
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Miami-Dade County was home to the now defunct Biogenesis of America clinic, whose founder recently admitted to providing Major League Baseball players and high school athletes with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
"Obviously, our community has been jolted by this scandal," the district's Moran says. After the story broke last year, the district conducted a feasibility study on creating a drug testing program for student-athletes.
Since deciding to move forward with the program, Moran says the response from the community has been very positive.
Skinner, from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says it takes parents, coaches, teachers and other role models to teach young student-athletes that they can be successful competing healthy and clean.
"I think that's the most important thing," she says.
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