Providing students with a safe and healthy learning environment is the goal of school administrators across the nation, and in the last few decades this goal has grown to include preventing students from using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. One of the first programs to address this issue was D.A.R.E., which began in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Studies on the program’s efficacy, however, have shown the results to be mixed at best, and in some cases, the prevalence of drug use in teens increased. In response to this, school administrators began looking elsewhere to find solutions to this issue. Some administrators drew inspiration from workplace drug testing policies, the result of which has been the implementation of random drug testing programs for students in schools across the nation. Such policies have left both parents and students alike uneasy about the process, and experts unconvinced of such a policy’s effectiveness to curb youth substance use.
The Background of Random Student Drug Testing
In the 1990s, the “War on Drugs” brought both a greater awareness to drug issues in the U.S., and a stricter approach to dealing with them. Many workplaces began to require drug testing for new-hires, as well as randomized drug testing for current employees. From these practices stemmed the idea of Random Student Drug Testing (RSDT), which requires students involved in sports teams or school clubs to be drug tested at school. Drug tests are typically administered in the form of a urinalysis, which can detect the use of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, PCP and opioids. The purported goal of such programs is to identify students with possible substance abuse issues in order to intervene early by referring them to treatment programs before an addiction develops. In many cases, however, schools resort to more punitive measures, subjecting kids to suspension, barring them from participating in extracurricular activities, and even expelling them from school entirely.
There are currently no federal laws on the books that govern school-based drug testing, though there are two Supreme Court Cases that grant public schools the authority to conduct drug testing under certain circumstances. In 1995, the Court ruled that it was legal for schools to randomly test student athletes. President George H.W. Bush was a proponent of the ruling and established federal funding for schools to implement such programs. In 2002, the Court expanded the ruling to include students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities, such as a band or chess club.
By 2008, roughly 16 percent of U.S. School districts had adopted some form of a student drug testing program. That same year, federal funding for RSDT programs ended, and yet school districts across the country continue to either expand their existing drug testing programs or implement new ones, using money from their own budgets.
Is Random Student Drug Testing Helpful or Harmful?
Random student drug testing programs have received both praise and condemnation across the U.S. in the last twenty years. Proponents of the programs say that drug testing students allows for early detection and intervention of teen drug use, thus increasing a student’s chances to be successful in the future. It also gives students a built-in reason to resist peer pressure, a well-known reason why kids experiment with drugs, citing the repercussions of being caught using. Lastly, they say that RSDT programs make schools more successful at fulfilling their goal of promoting a safe and drug-free environment for students. Opponents, however, disagree entirely. They point out that the tests are costly, and that the money would be better spent on other school-related expenses, or more effective prevention programs. It is also possible for students to cheat the system by bringing in or using someone else’s urine, thus circumventing any punishment or treatment programs. While students are not supposed to be punished for failing a drug test, eight percent of students in one study reported having been expelled from their school after a failed test. Lastly, having RSDT can prevent students from participating in an extracurricular activity for fear of failing the test, and such programs have been shown to help prevent teens from trying drugs in the first place.
Another concern with opponents in recent years has been the implementation of RSDT programs in situations that are not covered by the current Supreme Court rulings. Some schools have expanded their programs to include groups of students that are not involved in any extracurricular activity, such as students who drive or attend school dances. Several schools have even gone so far as to drug test the entire student body. It isn’t clear, opponents say, whether these expanded RSDT programs are legal. The Supreme Court originally ruled on the basis that athletes can be drug tested because they are role models within the school and can thus influence peer drug use, and that combining drugs with athletics was dangerous. This same reasoning was extended to include students involved in other extracurricular activities. That does not, however, include students outside of these activities, and remains an area of disagreement between the pro and con factions.
Does RSDT Work?
Perhaps the most important question to ask about RSDT is whether it works in helping prevent student drug use. Studies on the subject have been mixed, with some showing a minor decrease in student drug use in the tested population, while other studies have shown that school districts do not have lower reports of drug use at all. Even the studies that did find a reduced prevalence of drug use also found that drug testing had no effect on a student’s interest in experimenting with drugs in the future. Given these results, the National Education Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry have all taken stances against the use of RSDT in schools, instead encouraging districts to involve their students in school and extracurricular activities in order to reduce drug use.
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