What's the Matter With Drug Testing Students?

By Erica Sweeney 05/29/14
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.

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.  

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.”  

Ways to Deter Student Drug Use 

There are many ways that schools can intervene in student drug use, and drug testing is not a particularly effective strategy, Romer said, because it has punitive consequences and prevents students from participating in extracurricular activities. Other issues with student drug testing include the validity of tests, false positives and privacy violations. He said students may also learn to shift drug use to less-detectable substances. 

Even though proponents say a positive result does not end up on a student’s permanent record, Romer said it can be damaging to a student’s reputation because punishment includes removal from the sports team or extracurricular activity.

Student drug testing is most common in high schools, but is also used in some middle schools across the country. Nationally, less than 20% of school districts utilize student drug testing. Romer said this number seems to be holding steady, likely because parents are becoming more aware of the issue and are beginning to speak out against the policy. Implementing the testing is completely at a school district’s discretion and is not mandated by any state. 

“Schools are not in the business of finding out what kids are doing that’s illegal,” Romer said. “They should be educating. It’s fundamentally a problem that parents should be putting their efforts into, not schools, which are spending taxpayers’ money on it.” 

In their fight against student drug testing, parents from Northern Valley Regional High School conducted and presented their own research on the subject. Northern Valley draws about 2,500 ninth- to 12th-grade students from seven towns in northeastern New Jersey. The school board is comprised of representatives from the seven towns. 

Hertzberg—whose daughter graduated from the school in 2008 and whose son who is on the school’s baseball and soccer teams and graduates this spring—said parents in the district are highly educated professionals with the “time, resources and inclination” to delve into issues affecting their children and community. 

Parents set up a petition at change.org and received about 1,000 signatures, attended many meetings and brought in experts to speak on their behalf. They requested the data that school board members claimed to have supporting the effectiveness of student drug testing, Hertzberg said. Initial requests were denied, but parents realized there were no data once Freedom of Information requests were filed, she said. 

After examining the school board’s own policy and procedures manual, the parents found that the school was not in compliance with its own substance abuse policy, which stated that students in each grade should receive 12 hours a year of substance abuse education. Once parents brought this to the board’s attention, Hertzberg said it was implemented. 

In January 2014, the Northern Valley parents won their battle against random student drug testing when the school board voted 5-4 against adopting the policy. However, once a new board is elected in the fall, the issue may be revisited. 

Hertzberg said the process to getting this result was time-consuming and took a lot of hard work. It’s still unclear what made the school board take up the issue of random student drug testing so abruptly. She said the behavior of some members of the board was appalling, an “abuse of power.” 

“Maybe they were well intentioned, but I’m still puzzled by the way certain board members and members of the community [clung] to the idea that if we only had random student drug testing, the substance abuse problem would be addressed. It doesn’t add up looking at historical data. If they had said, ‘let’s take a step back and look at the issue,’ and properly vetted it, maybe the outcome would have been different.  

“What kept me involved beyond the issue of personal privacy, was the way a group of adults had done something to address the problem of substance abuse. It was ineffective and didn’t help kids who needed help. A life is a terrible thing to waste, and we need to address substance abuse, but in a way that’s effective. [Student drug testing] is not effective and may be harmful.”


Erica Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor based in Little Rock, Arkansas. She serves as the editor of Savvy Kids, and writes regularly for the Arkansas Times.

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Erica Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor based in Little Rock, Arkansas. She serves as the editor of Savvy Kids, and writes regularly for the Arkansas Times. You can find Erica on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.