Drug War – Is drug testing teens the solution, or just a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy?

It’s been a little more than a year since a student at Floyd Central High School shot two police officers and then turned the gun on himself. The boy, Tyler Dumstorf, killed Officer Frank Denzinger and severely injured Officer Joel White before firing a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot following a standoff with police.

The tragedy rocked the close-knit Southern Indiana community, leaving students, parents and school officials speculating about what might have caused a seemingly nice, normal kid to do something so terribly wrong. People were scrambling for answers. And while it’s unclear exactly what prompted the shooting, the community was desperate to find a reason. Many attributed Dumstorf’s violent act to drug use, given the teen was facing a minor charge for marijuana. Ultimately, school administrators agreed on a solution that they believe will prevent a repeat of such violence: drug testing.

When classes begin in August, parents will be offered free take-home drug testing kits through the school, and not surprisingly, students are overwhelmingly opposed. But students aren’t the only critics of the bold measure, which some parents believe is not only excessive, but also misguided.

“We’ve got them so scared about the punishment that we’re not thinking about getting them help,” says Suzette Wright, an active volunteer at Floyd Central and parent of a recent Floyd Central graduate.

The concerned mother further suggests that instead of drug testing, spending time and resources educating students about substance abuse would be more likely to address the problem, preventing drug abuse in the first place. “Simply supplying parents with drug kits leaves out the most important component of preventing and handling drug abuse,” she says. “We need to straighten out the messages we give children in our own families and society at large about drug abuse.”

Although the new policy is controversial, police and school officials believe voluntary drug testing is the proper response to the fatal events that unfolded at the home of Tyler Dumstorf.

“If it can keep one child from using drugs, getting in trouble, possibly being expelled from school or, God forbid, being involved in a serious incident like that then all of our work is worth it,” says New Albany Police Officer Steve Harris.

During his 13 years as an officer, Harris recalls four critical incidents in which an officer or suspect was killed or injured in Floyd County. “Three of those incidents involved drugs, and two of those incidents involved 15-year-olds,” says Harris. “If drugs had not been involved in the incidents, then two 15-year-olds and a police officer would not have died.”

When police responded to the Dumstorf residence on June 18, 2007, it was in response to a domestic dispute — a fight between the teen and his mother, reportedly over his marijuana use. Although the child was only facing a minor infraction for smoking pot — certainly nothing that could explain a tragedy of such magnitude — police and school officials believe Dumstorf’s marijuana use is reason enough to drug test any student whose parents feel it’s warranted.

Not surprisingly, the Dumstorf incident drove a wedge through the small community, particularly among students at the high school. It seemed two distinct sides formed, and the animosity intensified with the start of school last year. While everyone grieved for the slain officer, some sympathized with Dumstorf, prompting an angry and vocal backlash. 

Thomas Kummer, one of Tyler Dumstorf’s closest friends, says he was subjected to a wave of anger for voicing sympathy for his late friend, not only from fellow students, but from the community as well. “People were telling me, ‘How can you be friends with someone who shot a cop?’ and that my friend was going to hell,” says Kummer. The backlash was so bad that he had to cancel his MySpace account, where he received an onslaught of hateful messages.

According to Kummer, his friend was a great kid up until his final moments, and the shooting has baffled everyone who knew him well.

As Scott Robinson — who lived down the street from Dumstorf — explained in a story published in LEO Weekly (June 27, 2007), the murder-suicide stunned everyone. Tyler was much like everyone else’s kid in the neighborhood, and his mother handled the situation just as many other parents would have that evening: holding her teenager accountable for using marijuana. No one could have predicted what happened next.

Drug abuse and teen anger have been blamed for what happened to the two Floyd County officers. Floyd Central High School’s assistant principal, Janie Whaley, admits, “The tragedy with Tyler underlines the importance of the drug, alcohol and safety policies. We need to continually work to identify and get help for troubled students — and it is not always easy to do either one. Any school the size of FC will have a percentage of students with those issues.”