Why Are US High Schools Still Paying for Drug Tests?

By Neville Elder 08/04/15

Despite a lack of evidence to support their worth, our high schools are still finding new ways to pay for drug and alcohol testing for teens.


Since the end of federal grants for drug and alcohol testing (DAT) in schools in 2011, the cost of DAT has become a headache for many high schools around the country. DAT was established under former President George H.W. Bush in 1995 for student athletic programs and expanded in 2002 to include all after-school programs. The Supreme Court ruled that children may have no expectation of privacy in a school, but stated schools can only test kids in extracurricular programs, either randomly or because drug use is suspected. This covers students in anything from the football team to chess club.  

Despite studies that show DAT is ineffective in deterring drug and alcohol use in teenagers, testing is still very popular with school boards. As a new school year approaches, dozens of high schools across the US have voted to start new testing programs and many have voted to expand programs already in place.

But they’re expensive. All over the country, school boards are coming up with new ideas to pay for DAT. On July 14, the Rio Rancho School District in Albuquerque, New Mexico, voted to spend a staggering $25,000 on testing for athletes over the coming year in two comprehensive high schools: Rio Rancho High and V. Sue Cleveland High. This testing will cover 2,000 eligible students enrolled in athletic programs, including some eighth graders called up to play on high school teams, though steroids—the performance enhancing drugs used by athletes—will not be tested for. Income from gate receipts at sporting events will foot the bill.

As reported by NPR, Vestavia Hills High School in Alabama has begun its own voluntary program that will charge parents $40 a year. This voluntary scheme will cover students throughout the school, not just the after-school programs and, in some part, may offset the $1,500 Vestavia Hills has had to spend every year for over a decade.

Dinuba High School in Southern California has also opted to introduce random testing at a cost of $17,600 a year. It will be supplied by the local addiction solutions operation, Recovery Resources, who already supply two other school districts in the area with drug testing and intervention support. And in an inventive piece of accounting, the school has co-opted these funds from the State of California’s Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). This plan, according to thedinubasentinel.com, aims to provide funds for a "safe student environment." This program will replace drug-sniffing dogs, previously used to detect drug use.

Many schools have similar procedures to Dinuba’s new program. If a student tests positive at Dinuba High School, the new "three strikes" rule will work like this:

1. After a positive result, the student must participate in a substance abuse treatment program and submit to further testing or he or she will be banned from athletics for a calendar year and must provide a clean drug test before reinstatement.

2. A second positive test will result in an automatic six-week ban if the student joins a treatment program. Again non-participation will result in exclusion from sports for one year.

3. A third positive test will get the student a one-year ban whether they enter a treatment program or not. If they refuse to enter treatment they’ll lose the right to participate in athletics for the rest of their high school career.

Some other school districts across the US are dodging the financial bullet to instigate testing. The City of Pratt, Kansas, will cover the costs of their DAT program with part of a $25,000 gift from a local nonprofit. The school district in Coweta, Oklahoma, has adopted a more rigid approach to testing. It appears they will charge students a mandatory fee for the test.

As reported in the Albuquerque Journal, Bruce Carver, Rio Rancho’s athletics director in New Mexico, told the school board meeting before the vote that the request for testing came from his coaches:

“This is a unified push...This is not a top-down mandate. It came from the ground up. And remember, this is a deterrent, not a punishment.”

But random drug and alcohol testing has failed to show any noticeable impact as a deterrent on high school students.

Dr. Linn Goldberg is the head of the division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. In a 2007 study of DAT at five schools with programs and six without DAT, he discovered no significant change in drug and alcohol use in teens whether they had testing programs or not. This supported conclusions from a famous 2003 study on the success of the original federally funded DAT program.

DAT can give false positives for diabetes and ADHD medications, which may incorrectly light up a result for amphetamine use. The majority of ADHD medications in the US are prescribed for children under the age of 18.

In fact, according to Dr. Linn Goldberg, in a conversation with The Fix, randomized testing was accompanied by an increase in some risk factors for future substance use.

“If everyone (in the school) is getting tested for drugs it becomes the norm. Drug tests normalize drug use.”

He believes knowing that a positive result will not get a student banned from sports if they enter a treatment program diminishes the punishment for using drugs. Added to the fact that schools won’t test over the summer, or on weekends, seems to suggest some teenagers will find a way to dodge the test.

Depending on how the programs are applied, random DAT can be disruptive to the school environment; in the high pressure world of teenage society, rumors and disinformation spread quickly, students can become isolated, accused and bullied.

Dr. Goldberg says it’s amazing that billions of dollars are spent on programs that have no evidence to support their efficacy. But DAT programs give the appearance of action.

Dr. Goldberg recommends that the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) should be the first stop for school administrators looking for drug awareness programs. One of those resources recommended by DHHS is G.R. Taylor’s bookYouths Serving Youths in Drug Education Programs. In the book, Taylor introduces a model drug curriculum where, much like 12-step programs, peer groups are best at supporting drug and alcohol abusers. Teen advisors are better able to testify and talk about the cultural values and societal pressures that exist in high school and they are more sensitive to each other when dealing with drug-related problems. In other words, they get it, and can advise and support their friends and fellow students.

When Bruce Carver, the athletics director at Rio Rancho, talked about the importance for DAT in the sporting programs in his schools coming from the "ground up," he was talking about the head coaches. When surveyed, the majority of coaches were firmly in favor of random testing. They all believed it was the right policy. When speaking with The Fix this week, Carver was asked why the program was introduced, he said:

“Because we were sick of taking about it ... Something had to be done.”

The testing to be introduced in Rio Rancho schools will not be a standalone scheme. Carver has already introduced a system to help his students understand the dangers of drugs: a hotline where students can talk to someone anonymously about the drugs they take, or in the case of athletes, ensuring anything they might use to improve performance is not a banned substance.

When asked about Dr. Goldberg’s study and the earlier 2003 study on DAT testing, he said he wasn’t aware of the studies, but it was clear from talking to him that he and his coaches care deeply about his students' well-being. He said just as Obamacare will be remembered in 20 years as a significant achievement, this decision was not made lightly.

“It takes boldness to make change,” he said.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. He last wrote about the end of the Silk Road and about the life and death of Charles Kennedy.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.