Q&A: John P. Walters

September 17, 2003 2 min read

In a July 30 telephone interview with Staff Writer Darcia Harris Bowman, John P. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, addressed issues surrounding student drug testing. The following are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. Proposals for school-based drug testing tend to ignite debates about privacy. On one end you have the civil liberties groups who argue that drug testing violates students’ right to privacy. And on the other hand, you have some parents and family-values groups who oppose drug testing as a government intrusion into what they view as private family matters. How do you respond to such a broad range of privacy concerns?

A. Well, I think you have to take them seriously, but I also think the law does take them seriously. The issue ultimately is decided for me on the side of being a more aggressive advocate for testing on the basis that this is more like a disease.

We’re not mandating [drug testing]. We’re not making it a condition of getting federal money for education. We’re simply saying, here’s the information, here’s what the state of the law is, here’s the facts.

Q. So the privacy issue then, in your view, isn’t enough of an argument for a school not to have a drug-testing program?

A. I don’t think the privacy arguments pertain in the case of this disease. I’m not talking about reading kids’ diaries. The fact is that in our corporate world, in the military, in safety positions, we have seen fit to assure the safety of the wider population and the individuals and the welfare of the enterprises they’re engaged in through drug testing. And I think it’s an obvious question given the threat to our children: Why don’t we extend this tool that’s been so effective and could be so effective to more young people? I think when you look at it in those terms, it’s hard to say it’s illegitimate or that the issue is really privacy. The issue is really safety and health for young people and [drug testing in schools] is an important way to improve that.

Q. With the Supreme Court’s decision last year, schools are now free to subject students in extracurricular activities to random drug tests. Some critics contend that this is going to deter students not from drug use but from participating in programs that have been shown to keep kids from using.

A. Well, I wouldn’t deny that there may be kids who ... might not participate because they don’t want to show up with a positive drug test. That may happen.

In the schools where drug testing has been deployed, I can tell you what I’ve seen and what the data suggests is, it’s not a matter of cutting off drug users from extracurricular activities in any significant number. It helps to reduce drug use in the school. Obviously, it helps most directly those kids in extracurricular activities.

Also, it’s important to consider whether or not some of the proposed ways to expand into the school population in general are not worth considering, such as: allowing extracurricular activities to be seen broadly as some schools do, not just athletics but a variety of other after-school activities are included; where parents can voluntarily include their children in the testing program even if they’re not in extracurricular activities; where students who drive to school ... are tested. And I think it will be interesting to see ... something like a magnet school structure [with] people selecting freely to attend that school knowing that drug testing would be a part of that school’s practice.