Student Well-Being

Bush Plan for More Drug Testing Debated

By Darcia Harris Bowman — February 04, 2004 4 min read
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President Bush’s proposal to spend an additional $23 million on random student drug testing in schools has ignited protests from groups that say such programs are a waste of money.

In his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address, the president cited an 11 percent drop in drug use among high school students over the past two years and credited the decrease in part to school-based drug testing.

The 24 page pamphlet, “Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No,” is available from the American Civil Liberties Union. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools” is available from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

That claim was disputed the next day by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance, which announced a campaign to counter the efforts of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy to promote drug testing across the country.

“Decisions about our children’s health and well-being should be based on science, not on politics,” said Graham Boyd, the director of the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project. “As more money becomes available, the temptation to use drug testing on our children will grow. But until it’s proven that [these programs] will help them, we really need to be wary.”

To drive home that point, the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City- based organization that promotes drug-awareness education and the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana, have mailed an informational pamphlet to more than 17,000 school officials nationwide.

The groups say the publication, “Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No,” provides the latest scientific evidence on the practice, along with information about the legal implications and financial costs of such programs.

More Money

Specifically, the organizations point to the results of the only large-scale examination of student drug testing’s effectiveness. That federally financed study, published in the April 2003 issue of the Journal of School Health, found no statistical difference in the rates of drug use between schools that tested students for drug use and those that did not.

The ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance are mailing this pamphlet against drug testing to school officials.

The ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance are mailing this pamphlet against drug testing to school officials.

The Bush administration distributed its own pamphlet last year, replete with examples of successful programs. And John P. Walters, the director of the White House drug-policy office, has been on a 25-city tour this past year selling the idea of school-based screening programs.

The arguments for and against school-based drug-testing programs haven’t changed, but President Bush’s announcement of his plans to seek the new funding for fiscal 2005 raised the stakes considerably.

In the past, schools could choose to use money awarded under certain federal block grants to pay for drug testing. That changed after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 expanded the scope of student drug testing authorized under the Fourth Amendment. In that ruling, building on its 1995 decision upholding the testing of student athletes, the court held that participants in other extracurricular activities, such as marching band, could be tested.

In the wake of the 2002 ruling, the federal government for the first time allocated money specifically for school-based drug testing, setting aside $2 million in fiscal 2003 under the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program. Mr. Walters had said in an interview last summer that he would seek more money for such tests. (“Student Drug Testing Gathers Prominent Support,” Sept. 17, 2003.)

Last week, a spokesman for the drug-policy office expressed satisfaction with the president’s proposal, saying it more than fulfilled Mr. Walters’ hopes for funding.

“We know that drug testing works—if you look at segments of society where drug testing has been used, it’s been effective,” said the spokesman, R. Brian Blake. “The point of this isn’t to expose teenage drug users and enforce the drug laws. The point is to get kids the help they need.”

Bill Introduced

Within days of the president’s announcement, Reps. John Peterson of Pennsylvania, Tom Osborne of Nebraska, and Mark Souder of Indiana, all Republicans, introduced legislation to authorize the additional funding under the drug-free-schools program.

The bill, according to its sponsors, would prohibit the disclosure of test results to law enforcement officials and would require that the results be kept strictly confidential and destroyed when a student graduated or otherwise left school. The bill also would require schools to inform parents in detail about the program and give them the option of withdrawing their children from participation. It addition, it would allow only drug-testing methods approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Though lacking a specific strategy to counter the Republicans’ drive to fulfill President Bush’s drug- testing proposal, Mr. Boyd of the ACLU said his group and similar-minded organizations would work to “oppose this in Congress.”

Under the rules that govern the federal drug-testing money now, schools and districts that apply for grants must demonstrate how they will measure the effectiveness of their drug-testing programs. The $2 million available for this school year was distributed to eight school districts, Mr. Blake of the White House drug- policy office said, “but the size of the grants varies, and the rules could be totally different” with an influx of additional funding.

As for what students can be tested, Mr. Blake said schools using federal money for their programs may screen students who take part in “any competitive extracurricular activities.” The program “doesn’t expand what’s already been found to be constitutional by the courts,” he added.

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