Student Well-Being

Drug Testing Latest Tactic in Prevention

By Jessica Portner — April 07, 1999 8 min read

The practice of testing student athletes for drug use has become so entrenched here that raising money to pay for the pricey lab tests is as routine as soliciting funds for baseball mitts or cheerleaders’ uniforms.

“It’s like we breathe this drug-testing thing. It’s automatic,” Jim Franklin says after a night of hawking winner-take-all tickets at the Jackpot Bingo parlor to raise money for the Bulldogs, his son’s high school football team.

As the announcer spits out numbers in the smoke-filled hall teeming with elderly regulars, parent volunteers eagerly watch the money changing hands.

The next day, Mr. Franklin explains that part of the roughly $2,000 in profits will go toward defraying the cost of the drug tests that all student athletes at Dunbar High School must take. The tests cost about $36 per student.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court gave schools the constitutional green light four years ago to test student athletes for drug use, more than 100 districts in at least 20 states have started requiring students to submit to urine tests if they want to play sports.

Here in Lexington, a city of 226,000 in Kentucky’s bluegrass country, the school board voted in 1996 to allow Dunbar High to screen its student athletes for drug use. It is the only school in the 32,400-student Fayette County school system that has permission to administer drug tests.

Of the $50,000 that parents like Mr. Franklin raise for football each year through bingo, car washes, and other fund-raisers, about $3,500 is set aside to screen the players for cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs. In addition, parents raise about $12,000 annually to screen athletes on other sports teams.

Mr. 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 said last month. If students know they’ll be tested, he said, “they aren’t as likely to be led astray.”

Many educators and parents have turned to this clinical, though still largely unproven, method of drug-abuse prevention because, they say, traditional, softer-sell classroom approaches aren’t working to bring down disturbingly high drug-use rates among teenagers. 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 that think their programs work, I say without the [drug] testing you don’t have the hammer to help kids make good choices,” said Ron Slinger, a former athletic director in the Dixon, Calif., schools and a consultant for a drug-testing company. Mr. Slinger has been tracking the testing trend since his district starting screening athletes three years ago.

“Kids are experimenters. They understand consequences. You put a radar up or a stop sign” and they will quit, he argued.

Other Activities Too?

In its 1995 ruling in Vernonia School District v. Acton, the Supreme Court held that the Oregon district’s program of random urinalysis drug testing was not a violation of students’ protection against unreasonable search and seizure under the 14th Amendment, as civil liberties groups had claimed, because schoolchildren had fewer rights than adults. The court further held that athletes’ expectations of privacy are lower because teammates undress together in the locker room. Screening athletes is reasonable, the court said, because shooting hoops or running bases is a voluntary activity. (“Court Upholds Drug Tests for Student Athletes,” July 12, 1995.)

The law on drug testing in other extracurricular activities is far less settled, however.

Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a school district’s program to test students involved in activities besides sports. But two separate U.S. appeals courts recently have upheld random drug testing of students participating in extracurricular activities.

Various court rulings may have emboldened districts to act.

In the 8,000-student Gillette, Wyo., district, high school students last fall had to submit to random drug tests if they wanted to be members of extracurricular activities--including the Future Farmers of America. And after a high school student in Delaware Valley, Pa., was arrested for selling heroin on campus, the school board voted last spring to screen students in all extracurricular activities.

Ready for Spring Practice

In what has become a rite of spring at Dunbar High, 50 newly chosen members of the school’s baseball, tennis, and track teams filtered out of class one recent Tuesday afternoon to join a line outside the boys’ restroom.

In the cramped lavatory, two technicians from a drug-testing company are dressed in white lab coats, passing out specimen cups to the teenagers. The students are told to list on confidential forms any medications they are taking that could interfere with the test results. Half a dozen boys chug bottles of Sprite or Coke to coax the process along.

“You have a few students every year who have shy bladder,” said Ray Woodyard, the assistant principal and the person in charge of drug testing for the nearly 2,000-student school. “But if they don’t go, they don’t play.”

Each of the school’s 495 athletes from 22 sports teams are tested en masse before each season begins. The tests look for use of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, PCP, opiates, barbiturates, methadone, and, sometimes, steroids. Throughout the year, one out of four athletes is randomly checked at roughly monthly intervals.

Under the school’s policy, if a student’s urine test is positive for drugs, that student is barred from competition for a month and referred to outside drug counseling at his own expense; players can’t compete for a season and must complete a drug-rehabilitation program if they fail twice, and they are off the team if they flunk three times.

Such strict measures became necessary about three years ago when four of the school’s 60 soccer players were investigated by police for possibly using marijuana and LSD during summer recreation leagues, said Jon Akers, the principal at Dunbar

Administrators then conducted a survey to gauge the drug-abuse problem at the school. They found that 126 out of 434 students reported having smoked marijuana within the past month, and 184 students said they had ridden in a car with someone who was high on marijuana; 46 said they had been in a car in which the driver was using LSD. “That scared the doo-wah-ditty out of the parents,” Mr. Akers said.

The school has since conducted roughly 2,400 drug tests, and only one student has tested positive. The low numbers prove that drug use--at least among athletes--has declined, he said.

Dampening drug use is critical to guaranteeing the players’ safety, Mr. Akers said.

Watching a speedy pitch thud against the batting cage at spring practice recently, Dunbar baseball coach Skip Hanson said: “When that ball is coming at you at 85 miles an hour, you have to be able to react quickly and see clearly.”

But the argument that drug use significantly imperils players doesn’t fly with some students here, who say the tests are just another excuse for schools to invade their privacy.

“It’s none of their business,” Justin Scott, a 17-year-old baseball player, said as he headed into the bathroom for the obligatory screening before the first practice of the season. “You aren’t going to be a failure in life if you use drugs.”

Bill Cole, the leader of Lexington’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that when schools impose mandatory drug testing, they are teaching children a bad lesson. “This is not about safety. It’s about control,” Mr. Cole said. “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 drug abuse, private-sector experts say screening a distinct population usually is not the best tactic.

“Testing programs work best in the workplace when they are given randomly to everybody, even the bosses,” said Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research group in Washington. “When you’re just rating specific groups, the temptation is to beat the system.”

Easy To Cheat?

When the testing started at Dunbar High, some students who used drugs opted not to participate in sports, several students here said, adding that other athletes may have chosen to restrict their habit to the off-season.

“I can go a season without doing something illegal,” one Dunbar athlete said after the test last month.

And there’s a perception among athletes here that this is one test that’s easy to cheat.

“You just buy powdery stuff at nutrition stores and mix it with water, and then you’re fine,” said Jaryn Oakley, a 15-year-old cheerleader. “I’ve seen girls in the bathroom empty packets into a jug of water. When I say, ‘What’s that for?’ they answer: ‘The drug test.’ ”

Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, a pediatrician at the Inova Hospital for Children in Falls Church, Va., and an expert on adolescent drug use, said 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,” Dr. Schwartz said. Many such products, like one called Urine Luck, are easily available on the Internet.

Paula Childs, a spokeswoman for LabCorp, the Burlington, N.C., company that conducts the tests at Dunbar, said the firm takes precautions to prevent cheating. The technicians use cups with temperature gauges to make sure the specimen came from a warm body and not a packet. But the method is not always foolproof, Ms. Childs said.

Akers last week said he plans to seek more funds to pay for tests to detect masking agents.

David Stone, a Lexington businessman whose son played on Dunbar’s soccer team, says the test is good training for students entering the workforce.

“Down the road, kids are going to be scrutinized more and more on the job for substance abuse,” he said. “This is just preparation for when they go out into the real world.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Drug Testing Latest Tactic in Prevention

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