Nikos A. Leverenz

Not Doing Enough For Veterans

On this Veteran's Day, Americans are serving abroad far away from their friends and loved ones. Hopefully, each of them will return home safely, finish their commitments to the military, and move on to rewarding civilian lives.

But the sad reality is that many of today's service members, including those currently stationed in the combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, will join the ranks of those who call the streets of America home.

Indeed, the extent of the homelessness problem among veterans is already large. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), "as many as 200,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year."

Are we doing enough? Not by a long shot. The Director of Homeless Veterans Programs at the VA admitted to The Washington Times last winter that they serve 100,000 homeless veterans each year. By its own numbers, the federal government is not meeting its obligation to those who have served.

On a positive note, the efforts of organizations like U.S. VETS -- which provides housing and employment assistance for homeless veterans -- deserve more support from politicians and citizens alike.

It's easy for someone to buy a bumper-sticker to proclaim that we should "Support Our Troops." The reality of current government policies is far less than ideal, however. Budget cuts for VA mental health and substance abuse programs, which date back to the Clinton Administration, should be reversed.

The demand for VA services surrounding mental health and substance abuse is likely to increase very soon. Recent media reports indicate that rates of alcohol and other drug use are on the rise among those serving in Iraq. The Army's Surgeon General just issued the results of a survey finding that 30 percent of those returning from Iraq developed some mental health problem shortly after returning home.

Regrettably, many homeless veterans are faced with underlying substance abuse and mental health issues. Those issues may be the underlying causes of their homelessness. To be sure, military service does not automatically lend itself to substance abuse or mental health problems, much less homelessness. But for those who have fallen through the cracks, we must find more comprehensive and constructive ways to deal with these serious problems. Above all, we must pursue policies that put the overall health and well being of our veterans first.

The national tragedy of an underserved veteran population is compounded by the incarceration of veterans who are suffering from substance abuse problems. Thankfully, we no longer imprison the mentally ill. This should also be the case for those who are using alcohol and other drugs in a manner that is detrimental to their health.

When it comes to jailing our veterans simply because they are dealing with a substance abuse problem, this nation needs to radically alter its present course. Comprehensive treatment that provides a continuum of care must be our first response, not banishment to a jail cell. Those who have placed their very lives at risk in the name of duty, honor and country deserve this small concession -- and so very much more.

Do those politicians who brandish the title of "leader" have the dedication to do what is right by the least of these brave souls?

A New Approach to Student Drug Testing

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a stellar record as a children's advocate. The physical health and emotional well being of children remain his top personal and professional priorities in Sacramento, as they have been for the past two decades.

In August, Schwarzenegger announced a billion-dollar settlement to remedy California's failure in providing adequate textbooks and safe learning facilities in low-performing schools. In contrast to Gray Davis, who spent almost $20 million fighting the suit, Gov. Schwarzenegger ordered his administration to "come to an agreement that puts the children first."

A bill sits on his desk today that provides him the opportunity to come through for California's children, and their parents, once again.

SB 1386, authored by State Senator John Vasconcellos, rejects the blunt, ineffective and invasive tool of random student drug testing in favor of an alternative approach. Its provisions ensure that the privacy of students and the rights of parents are respected in the pursuit of a safe and secure learning environment. It also recognizes that trust and cooperation between those involved in the educational process – schools, students and parents – are essential in facilitating high levels of student success.

In contrast, mandatory random student drug testing, as practiced in some California schools, is rooted in fear and punishment. It is forwarded by its proponents, including the drug testing industry, as a panacea to the problem of adolescent substance use. However, the best available scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that it is ineffective at deterring or detecting drug and alcohol use among students. Even the former Deputy Drug Czar, Andrea Grubb Barthwell, admitted as much to Newsweek this past February.

One of the most troubling aspects of mandatory random student drug testing is the potential decrease in student participation in after-school programs and extracurricular activities. A robust body of research shows that those programs are the most effective means of deterring adolescent substance use, teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. As the governor himself told Congress in 2003, "After-school programs work. Test scores go up, crime rates go down and taxpayers save money."

SB 1386 limits the circumstances under which schools can test students for drugs and alcohol. Only if a school has a clear indication that a student is using or in possession of drugs, alcohol or other intoxicants, can it order the student to be tested. Should a student test positive, schools are encouraged to use existing resources to provide support services promoting scholastic success and addressing the student's unlawful use of substances.

Additionally, the bill provides for an anonymous and voluntary random drug testing program, using the one currently employed by San Clemente High School and other California schools as a model. Parents and students must provide their consent to such a program, and test results will go exclusively to parents.

In the San Clemente model, parents are given a meaningful voice in the process, no student is deprived of participation in extracurricular activities, and a constructive dialog is struck between schools, parents and students. The State Board of Education formally recognizes that "parent involvement is fundamental to a healthy system of public education." SB 1386 gives real meaning to these words.

SB 1386 has strong bipartisan support across the ideological spectrum. All involved share a commitment to the safety of schools, the health and well-being of students and the privacy rights of families. As it made its way through the legislature, it received the endorsement of a broad array of organizations and individuals, including the California State PTA, ACLU, NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

It's time once again for the governor to "put the children first." All it takes is his signature. Schools, parents and students – working together, instead of against one another – will do the rest.

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