Student Well-Being

White House Backs Wider Drug Testing in Schools

By Mark Walsh — September 11, 2002 3 min read
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The Bush administration’s drug czar is telling public schools in a new document that drug testing of students has “enormous potential benefits” and that concerns about damage to individual privacy are “largely unfounded.”

“Already, testing has been shown to be extremely effective at reducing drug use in schools and businesses all over the country,” John P. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says in the booklet. “As a deterrent, few methods work better or deliver clearer results.”

“What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools,” a 17-page guide released Aug. 29, emphasizes that the decision on whether to adopt student drug-testing programs should be made by local school officials and parents. But the tone of the publication favors expanded testing.

The impetus for the guide was the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27 decision that upheld a district’s policy of drug testing a wide group of those in extracurricular activities. The court ruled 5-4 that testing those who participate in such activities as the marching band and Future Farmers of America does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches. (“Supreme Court Allows Expansion of Schools’ Drug-Testing Policies,” July 10, 2002.)

The Supreme Court decision in Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls is “a big step in the right direction, for it gives every school in every city and every town a powerful new tool for controlling one of the worst threats facing kids today,” Mr. Walters says in the document.

The Bush administration earlier this year had argued in the high court in favor of the Tecumseh, Okla., school district and its policy of testing extracurricular participants beyond athletes. The Justice Department even argued, in response to a question from one of the justices, that testing all students in a public school would pass muster under the Fourth Amendment.

Mr. Walter’s guide does not go that far. It says the high court ruling “is not a blanket endorsement of drug testing for all students.” It urges districts to consult a lawyer before adopting any drug-testing program. It also urges against serious punishment of students who test positive, such as expulsion from school.

“Results of a positive drug test should not be used merely to punish a student,” the document said. Schools should contact parents of a confirmed drug user and engage them in a treatment process. But it supports consequences for positive drug tests such as suspension from extracurricular activities or revocation of parking privileges.

The guide from the drug-control-policy office was criticized by groups that have been skeptical of the constitutionality and the wisdom of drug testing. But groups that had lined up on the side of the school district in the Earls case welcomed the office’s stance.

An official of the American Academy of Pediatrics said the medical group stands by its policy opposing drug testing as a condition of participation in activities.

“Drug testing is very limited, and it doesn’t identify the dangerous substance most commonly used by adolescents, which is alcohol,” said Dr. John R. Knight, a member of the AAP’s committee on substance abuse.

The National Education Association has not wavered from its opposition to student drug testing, said spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons. The Associated Press quoted her as agreeing with the White House guide’s statement that students testing positive should not be expelled. That’s true, she said, but that doesn’t mean the union has changed its position against drug testing.

“Our position is that just because drug testing is legal doesn’t mean it is a good idea,” she said.

But Katherine Ford, the communications director of the Drug Free America Foundation, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based organization, supported the drug-control-policy office’s guide.

“We know drug testing in the workplace and in the military has been a very successful tool toward deterrence,” she said. “We would like to see those same benefits apply to our children’s workplace, which is their schools.”

DeForest Rathbone, who runs a grassroots group called National Institute of Citizen Anti-Drug Policy in Great Falls, Va., said he and others tried unsuccessfully to get the Clinton administration to support student drug testing.

“They stiffed us,” he said. “Now, we’re tickled to death that the Office of National Drug Control Policy supports the concept.”

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