Student Well-Being Opinion

Extracurricular Drug Testing

By Johanna Wald — May 01, 2002 6 min read
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Marginal and disaffected students are those most likely to opt out of extracurricular activities if participation requires an intrusive, potentially humiliating drug test.

The line of questioning pursued by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in March, as they heard oral arguments in a case involving student drug tests, suggests that the court may be poised to sanction broader use of drug testing in schools. If that happens, one almost certain consequence will be that students who want to participate in an expanded range of extracurricular activities will be required to submit to these tests. The head of the Oklahoma school board whose policy is being reviewed by the court indicated as much when she said, “We’d love to test all students, if they’d let us.” And the deputy solicitor general of the United States, Paul D. Clement, said that in his opinion, schoolwide drug-testing programs would be constitutional. (“Supreme Court Hears Case on Expanded Drug Testing,” March 27, 2002.)

A majority of Supreme Court justices appeared to be persuaded by the argument that drug-testing policies represent, as Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, phrased it, part of a school’s “arsenal to prevent drug use.” To Justice Antonin Scalia, the Tecumseh, Okla., district’s tests represented an attempt to “train and raise these young people to be responsible adults.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed to agree, suggesting that the testing is “an effort to deal with the demand side of drugs.”

While the logic may be persuasive in this context, might there not be another, darker side to the argument? Ambitious high school students who recognize that participation in extracurricular activities gives them the leg up they need to gain admission to the college of their choice will not be deterred by required drug testing, for example. It might even be for them, as one adult suggested, the “hammer” they need to “say no to temptation.” But what about marginal and disaffected students, those who may not see college in their future? Missing in most accounts of this debate has been any consideration for what the impact of extending drug-testing programs might be on them.

These are kids for whom participation in an extracurricular activity may represent more than just an add-on that pulls them into the “accept” column of an elite college. It could be the lifeboat they need to sail safely into the “survive” column in life. Yet, these are also the students most likely to opt out of extracurricular activities if participation requires an intrusive, potentially humiliating drug test.

Research is fairly clear about what academically at-risk and marginal students need: connections, attachments, and engagement. The Harvard University educator Gil G. Noam has written extensively of the critical role that mentoring, the development of trusting relationships with a wide array of adults, and involvement with the community can play in such students’ lives. More than anything else, he maintains, a vulnerable student needs at least one adult who believes in him and in his future. Extracurricular activities at school often are the source of such adult bonding and guidance, as well as of small measures of success for these students. Finding such “islands of competence” that can enable them to experience success may spell the difference between continued vulnerability and emotional resilience, write Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein in Raising Resilient Children.

Consider this account from a student, posted on the Web site of What Kids Can Do:

I was in a pattern of academic failure, and so they barred me from my musical theater class. Discouraged and unmotivated, I dropped out of school. ... A year later, I found myself with a second chance, enrolled at a small alternative public high school. ... My adviser, Carlos, who was also our softball coach, cared about what we did and where our lives were headed, and his genuine concern and advice really made a difference. ... Like the chorus in my junior high school, that softball team mattered more than almost anything else I ever did in school. Our coach believed in us and he was there for us when we needed an adult. And that kept us motivated to work hard and come to school.

The question is, do public schools have a responsibility to try to pull in—instead of pushing out—such students?

Sadly, it feels increasingly as if they can’t afford to. An overemphasis on test-score-based accountability has created a perverse incentive for administrators to try to get rid of low-performing students, rather than work with them. An assistant principal in one Midwestern city said: “We want quality more than quantity. If that means removing dead weight, we will remove dead weight.”

Harsh disciplinary codes, typified by the proliferation and expansion of rigid, non-negotiable “zero tolerance” policies, have dramatically increased the number of students routinely barred from attending school, often for relatively minor misbehaviors that bear no relation to general safety. Despite studies showing how devastating these exclusions can be to children and their families, a spokesperson for Massachusetts’ state department of education justified the state’s swelling expulsion figures this way: “From our perspective, what these numbers show is that districts are becoming more vigilant about getting disruptive students out of the classroom in order to ensure that the rest of the students are able to learn.” Even two of the U.S. Supreme Court justices spoke disparagingly of “druggies” who pollute the educational environment.

When viewed alongside other school policies—high-stakes testing, zero tolerance, tracking—drug testing must seem to these students less a part of their school's arsenal to prevent drug use than part of its arsenal to categorize, isolate, and exclude them.

Is it any wonder that students labeled “dead weight” and “druggies” by adults in positions of authority may feel alienated and disengaged from school? Or that they would consider themselves of no particular value when their expulsion is seen as a bonus point for their district? When viewed alongside other school policies—high-stakes testing, zero tolerance, tracking, and restrictive special education placements, to name a few—drug testing must seem to these students less a part of their school’s arsenal to prevent drug use than part of its arsenal to categorize, isolate, and exclude them.

Yet, the counselors, youth workers, and alternative education providers who interact with these students after they have left the public schools routinely testify to the fact that most of these youths are neither incorrigibly “disruptive” nor hopeless “druggies” who deserve to be discarded with such callous disregard. Rather, they say, these students often come from damaged or dysfunctional family backgrounds, have experienced profound loss and trauma, and, like the young woman quoted above, have hit a rough spot in their lives.

In his recent book “Being Down": Challenging Violence in Urban Schools, Ronnie Casella, an educational researcher at Central Connecticut State University, observes that, for the most part, these are students who, though capable of acting in self-destructive ways, could well “pull it together” with a little help from adults who take an interest in their lives. Unfortunately, school officials’ overreliance on punitive and heavy-handed disciplinary practices continues, he says, to “create a school system that lacks caring and students who in the end give up on themselves and simply take what is coming to them.”

Studies show that participation in extracurricular activities reduces drug use. It increases the chances that struggling students will find mentors who recognize and nurture their talents and abilities, and will discover “islands of competence” that boost their self-image and build their confidence. Such activities represent for these students much more than a ticket to a good college. They represent a lifeline to a hopeful future.

Why, then, would schools choose to develop an “arsenal” that is very likely to further isolate those students most in need of engagement? By erecting barriers to students’ participation in extracurricular activities, drug-testing programs will only exacerbate for some students the problem that proponents claim it was meant to deter.

Johanna Wald is the research coordinator and an editor and writer for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The opinions expressed in this essay are her own and do not reflect those of the project.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Extracurricular Drug Testing


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