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What's the Matter With Drug Testing Students?

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By Erica Sweeney

05/29/14

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The Push for Student Drug Testing 

While most public health and civil rights organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Education Association and American Civil Liberties Union, oppose student drug testing, the U.S. Department of Education and Supreme Court have historically shown support for the issue. 

In 1995, the Supreme Court upheld random drug testing for student athletes in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton. In the 2002 case Board of Education v. Earls, the court expanded the decision, ruling that schools could require all middle and high school students to be tested for drugs before they could participate in any extracurricular activity.  

From 2003 to 2008, the Department of Education provided federal grant funds to school districts for drug testing in grades 6-12 “for student athletes, students engaged in competitive extracurricular activities, and students, who along with their parent or guardian, provided written consent to volunteer to be drug tested,” said a Dept. of Education spokesperson. The goal was to deter and detect substance abuse, and encourage all students to model drug-free students’ behaviors. 

In 2010, the department’s Institute of Education Sciences evaluated 36 schools in seven districts that received grant funds to examine the effectiveness of student drug testing. More than 4,700 students were surveyed about their participation in school activities, perception of school environment, attitudes on substance abuse and past drug use. 

The study, titled “The Effectiveness of Mandatory-Random Student Drug Testing,” found that students subject to drug testing reported less substance abuse than students in schools without testing. However, student drug testing had no effect on students’ intentions to use drugs in the future. It also had no effect on how many students participated in activities subject to testing, their attitudes toward the school or perceived consequences of drug use. 

Some school officials tout the effectiveness of student drug testing. Christina Steffner, superintendent at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in central New Jersey, said student drug testing works. Since the mid-1990s, it has been mandatory at the school that all athletes, students involved in extracurricular activities, seniors who park on campus, volunteers and students suspected of being under the influence be tested. 

A past survey of student athletes at Hunterdon Central found that 70 percent to 80 percent said that student drug testing deterred them from using drugs, Steffner said. And, so far this year, she said about 1,000 students (out of the 2,500 in the testing pool) have been tested, and there have been fewer than 20 positives. 

“The important thing is for school administrators to convince parents that finding students using [drugs] is not the worst thing, but not finding out is the worst thing,” Steffner said. “As an administrator, I recognize my responsibility to get our children college and career ready but also healthy and safe. [Student drug testing] is a huge issue. I don’t see a down side of it. If implemented correctly, [students] understand it. Why wouldn’t everyone think this is a good thing to do?” 

Steffner was previously part of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy initiative under the George W. Bush administration, and is still often called on by school districts across the country, including Northern Valley, to speak in favor of student drug testing. 

Scotti said the Hunterdon survey is frequently cited by those in favor of student drug testing, but it was never published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Also, she said the survey was conducted by school administrators who are in favor of drug testing. 

Some schools, like the Maize School District in Kansas and schools in Dublin, Ohio, have dropped student drug testing because of cost. School administrators in Dublin hired two full-time substance abuse counselors after dropping drug testing. Other schools all over the country have also dropped drug testing in favor of hiring more staff. 

But Steffner, whose district spent about $9,900 on drug testing in the last school year, said the cost is a small price to pay. She said a single one-hour workshop on substance abuse costs at least $5,000. 

While opponents of student drug testing point to studies like Romer’s that have shown positive school environment to be a better deterrent of student drug use, those in favor of testing, like Steffner, say student drug testing helps create that positive culture and climate among students. 

“You send messages by what you do and what you don’t do,” Steffner said. “It’s about how you treat the students and that you explain what you’re doing. I’d put our culture and climate there up against any. I’m passionate about this. I’ve seen great kids not reach full potential [because of drug use]. We do what we can to get through during those teenage years.”  

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