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What's the Matter With Drug Testing Students?

As more public schools climb on the testing bandwagon, is there supportive evidence it makes a difference or is it simply butt-covering by school boards? The debate rages across the country.

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By Erica Sweeney

05/29/14

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As members of a substance abuse task force at Northern Valley Regional High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, Susan Hertzberg, along with a group of other parents and school officials, examined the impact of drugs at the school. They conducted research on the issue and found that the number of students who tried alcohol and other drugs doubled from ninth to 10th grade. The task force recommended that the school increase substance-abuse education for ninth-graders and concluded that student drug testing wasn’t the answer because it was costly and research suggested that it was not effective in combating drug use among teens.  

The task force’s recommendation for increased education was made during the 2005-06 school year, but was not put into practice. The school held a few assemblies on substance abuse, but didn’t make major modifications in how students were educated on the subject, Hertzberg said. 

And, in spring 2013, another of the group’s suggestions was disregarded when the school board began the process to implement random student drug testing at Northern Valley, without properly informing parents or presenting a valid argument for the policy, Hertzberg said. 

“There were so many issues with this I hardly knew where to begin,” she said. “They hadn’t identified what the substance abuse problems in our area were or provided analysis of alternatives. They immediately went to random student drug testing without intervening steps. We were simultaneously trying to understand why student drug testing was a solution to a problem that wasn’t identified. All of a sudden there was a random drug test information night in late May. After that, the board, at a subsequent meeting, met to go ahead to draft random drug test policy.”

Drug testing is not a particularly effective strategy, and there are issues with the validity of tests, false positives and privacy violations.

Hertzberg said the school board presented only “one-sided anecdotal stories” in favor of student drug testing with little research to back up their arguments. This didn’t sit well with her or other parents. When the task force had considered student drug testing, she said they had presented both sides of the issue and opened the meetings to the community. 

The parents of Northern Valley decided to fight the school board on the issue of student drug testing. They conducted their own research, filed Freedom of Information requests and found experts to speak on their behalf. 

Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, was one expert who joined the Northern Valley parents in their fight. The Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes drug policies based on scientific practices that consider health and civil rights, is against student drug testing. Scotti said in recent years the organization is being called on more frequently to assist parents in similar fights. 

“When [student drug testing] first started bubbling up in the Supreme Court about 10-12 years ago, there wasn’t much research and not much parental opposition,” she said. “Now, a growing body of evidence shows random drug testing is not effective and has unintended consequences [such as an increase in] substances not tested for. In light of this, there’s a growing backlash among parents.” 

Scotti said that there are no peer-reviewed, evidence-based, objective studies supporting student drug testing. She said studies show that random drug testing destroys school environment, invades privacy and does not stop students from using drugs. 

A study, titled “Student Drug Testing and Positive School Climate: Testing the Relation Between Two School Characteristics and Drug Use Behavior in a Longitudinal Study,” published in the Journal of Study on Alcohol and Drugs earlier this year showed that positive school climate was more effective in deterring student drug use than random drug testing. 

Dan Romer, co-author of the study, said students surveyed over a one-year period were less likely to use drugs when they had a positive outlook on their school. One of the main takeaways, he said, is that schools worried about students using drugs should look to other solutions, like educational programs, not student drug testing.  

“If school is a more comforting and inviting place, where students feel respected, where they work on academic needs, it’s a better environment all around,” he said. “Resorting to drug testing is a bad sign. It’s an educational institution, not a penal institution.” 

In the study, students were interviewed about their current drug use and school climate. The students were re-interviewed a year later and school climate was re-examined. Students who said they had a positive school climate were less likely to start using drugs or progress to harder drugs. However, there was no reduction in alcohol use, a surprising finding, Romer said. 

Other studies on the subject have had similar results. The University of Michigan conducted two national studies using data collected from 76,000 students in more than 700 schools. The studies found no difference in drug use in schools that test students and those that do not. 

The Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine conducted a study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2003, of two schools on random drug testing of student athletes that showed some evidence that testing was effective in deterring drug use in the previous year, but not in the previous 30 days. But, a follow-up study published in the same journal in 2007 examined 11 schools over two years and found that testing didn’t deter student athletes’ drug use. 

Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said schools may be intrigued by the idea of student drug testing because it seems like it could work. But there are many issues that are overlooked or ignored. Most schools only test students involved in extracurricular activities, and Romer said these students tend to be less likely to use drugs. Also, not all drugs can be detected.  

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