Student Well-Being

Student Drug Testing Gathers Prominent Support

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 17, 2003 8 min read
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Hunterdon Central Regional High School officials offer a simple argument in favor of testing students for illegal drug use.

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Read the accompanying Q & A with John P. Walters, White House Director of National Drug Control Policy.

After three years of screening athletes and one year of including students in all other extracurricular activities, a 1999 poll of the Flemington, N.J., school’s 2,900 students showed decreases in 20 of 28 categories of drug use. Then, after administrators had suspended the program for three years during a court battle over its constitutionality, a 2002 canvass of students showed increases in 18 of the same drug-use categories.

“I can’t speak for all schools, but I can tell you that in this high school, we definitely impacted our drug problem with this program,” Hunterdon Principal Lisa A. Brady said last month, shortly after the state supreme court ruled the school’s drug- testing policy constitutional.

Over the past year, support for student drug testing has also been gathering momentum in more prominent circles. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to give schools more leeway to conduct drug tests, a top Bush administration official has been openly campaigning to persuade schools to use the practice.

“This is a disease that requires people to be initiated into substance abuse in their teenage years,” John P. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a July interview with Education Week. “If we’re going to take that seriously and use the knowledge we have, testing is an important tool to optimize the treatment and prevention resources we have.”

Nearly 12 percent of the nation’s 12- to 17-year-olds are current users of illegal drugs, and 22 percent have used them in the past year, according to new federal data. Those figures come from telephone interviews with 23,645 youngsters for the government’s 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which was released this month.

And in a 2003 Columbia University study released last month, roughly half of teenagers in grades 9-12 said they attended high schools where drugs were used, kept, or sold, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year’s survey by the university’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Despite such statistics, student drug- testing programs have remained scarce and controversial, with only 5 percent of public schools nationwide screening student athletes for drug use, and only 3 percent testing students involved in other extracurricular activities.

Critics like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Education Association argue that drug testing violates students’ constitutional rights to privacy, fails to deter drug use, erodes relationships between students and educators, and costs too much for most districts to justify.

So far, those arguments and the threat of lawsuits have been successful in dampening school administrators’ enthusiasm for drug testing, experts on both sides of the debate agree. But the tide may be turning.

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in July of last year broadened the power of public schools to test students for illegal drug use, a move that encouraged renewed discussion of such policies in many communities.

At the same time, the federal government is spending more money than ever before to help schools pay for drug screening, a trend that advocates hope to continue.

“We’re not mandating that everyone has to do this,” Mr. Walters said, “but young people and adults who are concerned about victims—you might want to consider this before there’s a tragedy.”

‘What Changed My Mind’

Mr. Walters, who worked on drug policy in the U.S. Department of Education in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, said he has long believed that drug testing in public schools can work.

That conviction turned to open advocacy after the Supreme Court ruled in July 2002 that schools could screen not just athletes, but also students who participate in other extracurricular activities.

Soon after that decision, Mr. Walters, as President Bush’s “drug czar,” released a pamphlet on school drug testing that dismissed concerns about privacy as “largely unfounded,” and urged principals, superintendents, teachers, and parents to consider “the enormous potential benefits” of drug testing. He also took that message on the road, stumping for drug testing in public appearances in schools and communities across the country.

“The reason we didn’t take it up as aggressively [before the Supreme Court decision] as I have now is that we were concerned about the objections,” Mr. Walters said. “What changed my mind is visiting schools where there’s drug testing—both public and private—in the past year. The kids who are tested are much stronger and feel much safer.”

Legal challenges to school drug testing in recent years suggest that some students don’t like being forced to hand over samples of their urine and saliva to school administrators. National groups who share that opposition maintain that schools, as a result, are still largely uninterested in drug testing.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is something more districts are thinking about than ever before, ... but most decide at the end of the day not to go forward with it,” said Graham Boyd, the director of the ACLU’s drug-policy litigation program.

The school policy that was in dispute in the Supreme Court decision was adopted in 1998 by the 2,050-student Tecumseh, Okla., district and applied to students who participated in any activities that involved competition with other schools. Students’ urine was tested for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.

David and Lori Earls challenged the policy on behalf of their daughters. Both teenagers participated in school-sponsored extracurricular activities and were selected for random drug tests several times, and both tested negative.

Arguing on behalf of the Earls family, Mr. Boyd said the policy was a constitutional violation. The Supreme Court, however, ruled 5-4 that screening students for drug use is not an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. The decision last year expanded the scope of legal drug testing in public schools beyond a 1995 ruling by the court that upheld the testing of student athletes. (“Supreme Court Allows Expansion of Schools’ Drug-Testing Policies,” July 10, 2002.)

“The Earls case is a kind of passive invitation to schools to impose drug testing as a condition for participating in a broad array of extracurricular activities,” said Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University, in Washington, and the author of the book We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students.

“But, from my experience, schools are loath to create the expensive bureaucracy and surveillance regime required for an effective drug-testing program,” Mr. Raskin added. “Schools really don’t want to be in the drug-testing business, especially in a time of drastic budget cutbacks. There are just more educational things to be done with that money.”

Investing in Testing

Because drug testing is expensive, Mr. Walters of the White House drug office is asking Congress to do more to pay for the creation of school programs.

In the past, schools could choose to use money awarded under certain federal block grants to pay for drug testing. For the first time, though, the federal government, for the current fiscal year, allocated money specifically for drug testing, a spokesman with Mr. Walters’ office said. That fiscal 2003 allocation, $2 million, was set aside under the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.

Mr. Walters has asked Congress to reserve an additional $8 million under that program in the 2004 spending year.

Backing up the drug czar are like-minded legislators who have suggested a need for even greater support. U.S. Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., for example, said last year that he might introduce legislation that would allocate $100 million in federal grants to help school districts pay for drug testing of student athletes and those participating in extracurricular activities in grades 7-12.

The prospect of greater federal spending alarms critics of drug testing.

“The federal government is basically in collaboration with the drug-testing industry in trying to promote these ineffective programs—we’re throwing good money at bad,” argued Judith K. Appel, the deputy director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, an activist organization that promotes drug-awareness education and the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana.

The ACLU’s Mr. Boyd said he continues “to believe that the floodgates have not opened, though I imagine a full-bore propaganda campaign by the drug czar will have an impact, and I imagine greater federal spending will have even more of an impact.”

Ms. Appel and Mr. Boyd pointed to results from the only large- scale study of the effectiveness of student drug testing as the single best argument against schools’ adoption of such programs.

The study, published in the April 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. Conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and financed by the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study was based on data collected on 76,000 students in grades 8, 10, and 12 between 1998 and 2001.

Mr. Walters dismissed the findings, arguing that they weren’t nationally representative.

But opponents point out what they see as other potential flaws of drug testing. Drug-testing policies for participants in school extracurricular activities such as sports, they argue, are targeted at the wrong group of students.

A survey released this month by Bowling Green, Ky.-based PRIDE Surveys found that students who take part in school extracurricular activities are far less likely to use illegal drugs than their peers who don’t participate.

Still, Mr. Walters is on a mission to change attitudes about school drug testing.

"[Students are] asking for adult protection,” he said. “They do not want to be victimized.”

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