The indictment last week of suspected drug ring members who allegedly sold anabolic steroids to students at New Milford, Danbury and other area high schools brings the debate over student drug testing into the spotlight.

However, it doesn't answer the big question: Is testing students for drug use the right thing to do?

The answer is clouded by cost concerns, uncertainty over effectiveness and privacy issues.

Proponents say testing's value is in deterring drug use, and that in spite of the few positive test results so far, there's no way to measure the number of students who avoid drugs because of testing.

Others dismiss the value of testing for various reasons, from ineffectiveness as a deterrent, to concern for student privacy. And then, there's the expense -- times are tough and testing is not cheap.

In 2005, New Jersey acting Gov. Richard J. Codey ordered the testing of high school students for steroid use, reportedly the first statewide mandate in the country. Texas, Illinois and Florida then followed, though Florida dropped its program after one year.

"Kids want to be quicker, bigger and stronger," said Steven Timco, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees his state's testing program. "They want to get an advantage."

New Jersey tests 500 student athletes each year from among those who have qualified, as individuals or as members of a team, for state championship competition.

The National Center for Drug Free Sports conducts the steroid testing program, which costs about $100,000 per year. Its tests cover four banned-drug classes and 87 examples of banned substances.

"Once we do a seeding for the championships, we send the list of teams to the company and they test students at random," Mr. Timco said.

"I'm very proud and very supportive of the program, and that we are looking out for the health of our student athletes," he added.

He would not confirm how many students have tested positive, but one report said it was only one out of 2,000 in four years.

"What we are not able to determine is who stays away from drugs because they're afraid of being tested," Mr. Timco said. "We have the premier program out there. We are testing for everything."

Concerns in Connecticut

According to a 2009 survey of Connecticut students, 2.7 percent identified as having used steroids, while the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports in its 2010 Monitoring the Future Study that 1 percent of 10th-graders, and 1.5 percent of 12th-graders had abused anabolic steroids at least once in the year prior to survey.

While all grades showed significant reduction since 2001, the results of past-month use among 12th-graders remained stable.

Males have consistently reported higher rates than do females.

When Ridgefield resident Chip Salvestrini learned about the alleged steroid ring targeting area high school students, he was stunned.

He served as the athletic director for Danbury and Ridgefield schools for eight years each, and has been in that current post in White Plains, N.Y., for two years.

"Oh boy. Oh boy," he said over and over. "I can't imagine one coach in an area school who is not worrying about this. It is out there. There's no question. Every 15-year-old has access."

He said he saw his role as educating coaches about what they'd notice about a kid's body changing and trying to talk to them, but said coaches and administrators have been unwilling to accuse a student of being on steroids.

"I know it's going on, but I can't stop it. All I can hope is to find these kids and try to get them away from it," Mr. Salvestrini said.

Mr. Salvestrini went to college with the late NFL All-Star Lyle Alzado, whose death from cancer in 1992 was blamed on steroid use.

"When Lyle died, people started talking about the issue,'' he said.

"In coaching staff meetings, we would talk about muscle enhancement and what kids could get for supplements," he said.

"In my last couple of years in Danbury, there was a whisper of steroids."

A QUESTION OF BALANCE

Mr. Salvestrini said he'd support drug testing only if all students in a school are tested, because he thinks otherwise it would unfairly target athletes.

However, there are two landmark cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that it's constitutional to perform random drug testing on students participating in athletics and competitive extracurricular activities.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference talked about testing a few years ago, but lost ground as schools began to feel their budgets shrinking and the state legislature also made an unsuccessful proposal for testing.

Testing requires balancing the rights of individuals with the effort of schools to keep their students safe, said Scott Newgass, who works for the state Department of Education as a consultant for Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

"In no way would we step away from the hard work needed to keep our students safe, but we have to balance it with the rights they have as they walk in the door of the school," Mr. Newgass said.

While the state would support schools that choose to test, it would not be mandating it," he said, and while random testing is legal, targeted testing of someone suspected of using steroids is not.

Contact Eileen FitzGerald at eileenf@newstimes.com or at 203-731-3333.