Should students be drug tested at school?
School administrators are charged with ensuring a safe, supportive, and healthy school environment where children can learn and reach their full potential. This includes taking measures to prevent tobacco, alcohol and drug use among students. Historically, schools turned to prevention programs like D.A.R.E., but research shows that D.A.R.E. doesn’t work. Instead of supporting the implementation of proven prevention practices, some administrators have turned to a more punitive and controversial approach: drug testing students.
Why drug testing – and is it legal?
Based on work place drug testing policies, Random Student Drug Testing (RSDT) programs require certain groups of students (e.g., those belonging to a sports team or club) to be drug tested at school. Drug tests are usually in the form of a urinalysis, which detects marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, PCP and opioids. The stated goal of such programs is to identify students with possible substance abuse issues and to intervene early.
RSDT and other strict, punitive school practices such as zero tolerance policies grew out of the “War on Drugs” approach of the 1990s. Today, schools and administers implement these policies with the intended purpose of identifying students who may have a substance use problem and referring them to treatment. However, in many cases more punitive measures such as dismissal from extracurricular activities or expulsion have occurred.
There are currently no federal laws regarding school-based drug testing, however, there are two Supreme Court Cases that grant public schools the authority to conduct drug testing in certain circumstances:
- In 1995, the Court ruled that it was legal for schools to randomly test student athletes
- In 2002, that ruling was expanded to included students who participate in a competitive extracurricular activity such as a marching band or chess club
Once drug testing for student athletes was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush established federal funding for its use and it grew in popularity. By 2008, about 16 percent, or 2,000 U.S. School districts, had adopted some form of a drug testing program. While federal funding for these programs has since ended (as has other more effective forms of school-based prevention), school districts across the country continue to expand existing drug testing programs or adopt new ones using their own money. Just this month, high school districts in California, Kansas and Virginia announced they were either implementing or are considering starting a RSDT for their students.
Although the Supreme Court has limited its rulings on the constitutionality of random drug testing to students engaged in athletics and other activities, some schools have expanded their drug testing to other groups of students, for example, students who drive to school, attend school dances or even the entire student body. It is unclear whether these expanded programs are legal. The Supreme Court originally reasoned that athletes can be drug tested because they are role models and can influence the drug culture of a school, and that drug use and athletics are a dangerous combination. This same logic was extended to extra-curricular activities. While safety is a legitimate concern, this has remained an area of disagreement and viewed as a “slippery slope,” especially when schools have taken the liberty of implementing school-wide testing.
The good and bad
As a controversial policy, there are two sides to the debate.
Proponents say that:
- Drug testing allows for early detection and intervention
- Students have a built-in reason to resist peer pressure, a well-known reason why kids experiment with drugs
- Schools are fulfilling their duty in promoting a safe and drug free environment
- It increases chances for students to have a successful future
Opponents say that:
- Tests are expensive, the money that funds them would be better spent on more effective prevention measures
- Students who want to “cheat” the test may bring in someone else’s urine or turn to other drugs, alcohol or synthetic marijuana that will not show up on the test
- While students are not supposed to be punished for a positive test, one study showed eight percent of students in a sample had been expelled
- Tests can disproportionately impact students of color
- Extracurricular activities and athletics are pro-social activities that may be protective of substance use. When a positive drug test leads to suspension from these activities, the effects can be detrimental
Regardless of the differences in the pros and cons, one question remains. Does drug testing work?
Studies have been mixed and inconclusive. Some studies show that school districts that employ this strategy do not have lower reports of drug use and other studies find that there is a link between drug testing and reduced prevalence of drug use. Nonetheless, reports that have found a reduced prevalence of drug use have found that students who were drug tested and those who were not reported had equal interest in experimenting with drugs in the future.
There have been no systematic studies examining the effectiveness of drug testing as it compares to other prevention strategies. As opponents of drug testing have pointed out, there are a large number of unintended consequences to drug testing and no study has taken this into account in weighing the harms and benefits of RSDT in schools.
Given the lack of scientific data supporting the effectiveness of drug testing, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a strong position that student drug testing is not recommended. Let us know your opinion by commenting below.
Tiffany John, LMSW
Tiffany John is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction