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Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as An A+ For Drug Tests

An A+ For Drug Tests

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Testing student athletes for drug use has become so routine at Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, that parents solicit funds to pay for it right along with baseball mitts and cheerleaders' uniforms. "It's like we breathe this drug-testing thing; its automatic," says Jim Franklin after an evening of hawking tickets at the Jackpot Bingo parlor to raise money for the Dunbar Bulldogs, his son's high school football team.

Of the $50,000 that parents like Franklin raise for Dunbar football each year through bingo, car washes, and other fund-raisers, about $3,500 is set aside to defray the cost of testing players for cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs. And it doesn't stop there. Parents raise an additional $12,000 annually to screen students participating in other team sports, as well.

Franklin, whose son is the Bulldogs' quarterback, says it's worth every penny. "The drug tests give students a reason to say no to temptation," he says. "If students know they'll be tested, they aren't as likely to be led astray."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court gave schools the constitutional green light to screen student athletes for drugs four years ago, more than 100 districts in at least 20 states have begun testing programs. Here in Lexington, a city of 226,000 in Kentucky's bluegrass country, the local school board gave Dunbar High the go-ahead in 1996.

Many educators and parents now endorse this clinical, though still largely unproven, method of fighting drug use among teens because they believe soft-sell classroom approaches aren't working. In a 1998 federal survey, more than 41 percent of 12th graders and 35 percent of 10th graders said they had tried an illicit drug in the past year. "To all the education gurus who think their programs work, I say, Without the drug testing you don't have the hammer to help kids make good choices," says Ron Slinger, a former public school athletic director in Dixon, California, and a consultant for a drug-testing company. "Kids are experimenters, [but] they understand consequences." If you put up a "radar or a stop sign," they will quit, he insists.

Civil liberties groups have long argued that school-related drug testing violates students' 14th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. But in 1995, in a case involving Oregon's Vernonia School District, the Supreme Court held that screening student athletes for drugs did not run afoul of the Constitution. The justices ruled that schoolchildren have fewer rights than adults and that athletes' expectations of privacy are lower because teammates undress together in locker rooms. What's more, they said, screening athletes is reasonable because shooting hoops or running bases are voluntary activities.

The law on testing students engaged in other kinds of extra curricular activities is far less settled. Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against a district that had required drug tests of all extracurricular participants, including members of the marching band. Federal appeals courts, however, have seen such programs in a more favorable light. In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit sided with the Cave City, Arkansas, school district in a case brought by a student who wanted to join the radio club and the prom committee but refused to take the mandated drug test. And in an earlier decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a Rush County, Indiana, policy requiring a drug test of all students taking part in an extracurricular activity. The Supreme Court declined to review that ruling last fall.

Lexington's Dunbar High School tests only student athletes. On this particular spring day, the school is screening boys who hope to join the baseball, tennis, or track teams. They filter out of their classes and line up outside one of the restrooms. Inside the cramped lavatory, two technicians from a drug-testing company pass out specimen cups. Some of the teenagers chug bottles of Sprite or Coke to coax the process along.

"You have a few students every year who have shy bladders," says Dunbar assistant principal Ray Woodyard, who is in charge of drug screening for the 2,000-student school. "But if they don't go, they don't play."

The same drill is repeated before each sport season. Over the course of the year, the school screens some 500 student athletes-male and female-for marijuana, cocaine, LSD, PCP, opiates, barbiturates, methadone, and, sometimes, steroids. Then one out of four athletes is randomly checked at monthly intervals throughout the year.

If a student tests positive, he or she is barred from competition for a month and must pay for drug counseling. Those who fail twice can't compete for a season and must complete a drug-rehabilitation program. Three positive results and they are permanently off the team.

Dunbar principal Jon Akers says such strict measures became necessary three years ago when police investigated four school soccer players for possible marijuana and LSD use during the summer. Worried that they might have a wider problem, administrators surveyed students. Of the 434 polled, 126 reported having smoked marijuana within the past month, 184 said they had ridden in a car with someone high on marijuana, and 46 said they had been in a car driven by someone high on LSD.

"That scared the doo-wah-ditty out of the parents," Akers says. Since then, the school has conducted roughly 2,400 drug tests, and only one student has turned up positive-proving, the principal says, that drug use, at least among athletes, has declined.

Akers insists that the school needs to test for drug use, if for no other reason than to guarantee the players' safety. But the argument doesn't fly with some Dunbar students, who say school officials are invading their privacy. "It's none of their business," says Justin Scott, a 17-year-old baseball player, as he ducks into the bathroom for his obligatory screening. "You aren't going to be a failure in life if you use drugs."

Bill Cole, leader of Lexington's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, believes the mandatory testing is not only bad policy but also bad education. "This is not about safety; it's about control," Cole says. "We're teaching children that because they don't vote, they have no voice, and we can do what we want with them."

Though no hard data are available on whether school-based testing works to prevent student drug abuse, private-sector experts say screening a distinct population is usually ineffective. "Testing programs work best in the workplace when they are given randomly to everybody, even the bosses," says Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C. "When you're just rating specific groups, the temptation is to beat the system."

Several students say that's happening at Dunbar. Some of their peers, they say, dropped team sports to avoid the testing when it was introduced. Others simply restrict their drug use to the off-season. "I can go a season without doing something illegal," one student says after emerging from the lavatory.

And then there are those who try to cheat the test. "You just buy powdery stuff at nutrition stores and mix it with water, and then you're fine," says Jaryn Oakley, a 15-year-old cheerleader. Oakley says she's seen girls in the school bathroom empty packets of powder into a jug of water and drink it. "When I say, 'What's that for?' they answer, 'The drug test.'"

Richard Schwartz, a pediatrician at the Inova Hospital for Children in Falls Church, Virginia, and an expert on adolescent drug use, says that drinking cranberry juice or teas can dilute a drug's concentration and that products like dehydrated urine and other additives can mask a positive result. "You could drink 10 different things to sanitize your urine and make a test negative that should be positive," Schwartz says. Many such products, like one called Urine Luck, are easily available through the Internet.

Paula Childs, a spokeswoman for LabCorp, the Burlington, North Carolina, company that conducts the tests at Dunbar, says the firm takes precautions to prevent cheating. The technicians use cups with temperature gauges to make sure the specimens come from warm bodies. But the method is not foolproof, she says.

Meanwhile, parents like David Stone, a Lexington businessman whose son played on Dunbar's soccer team, stand firmly behind the testing. "Down the road, kids are going to be scrutinized more and more on the job for substance abuse," Stone says. "This is just preparation for when they go out into the real world."

--Jessica Portner

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Pages 10-11

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