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No 'Silver Bullet'

Random drug testing in schools does not deter drug use, it alienates students, deters them from participating in extracurricular programs, and erodes the trust between a parent and a child.
 
 
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Last week it was "WMD" all over again in the President's State of the Union message. This time the unsubstantiated claims and wrongheaded policy were aimed at America's schoolchildren in this latest effort to get them to "just say no" to illegal drugs.

Citing recent declines in illegal drug use among teenagers, and couched in loving and caring rhetoric, Bush credited random drug testing with the reduction. He then proposed an additional $23 million for schools opting to use, as Drug Czar John Walters touts, this "silver bullet."

Immediately following, HR 3720 was introduced in the House by Rep. John Peterson (R-5th/PA), providing grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to schools that institute random drug testing of all students.

These proposals are based on shaky assumptions and political whim rather than sound research. Thoughtful investigations instead reveal that random drug testing does not deter drug use, and that it alienates students.

Last year's large federally funded survey that showed declines in illegal drug use also compared schools with and without drug testing. It turned out there was no difference in illegal drug use among students in drug testing v. non-drug testing schools. Aside from imparting misinformation about the deterrent value of testing, since only 5 percent of American schools currently utilize drug testing, Bush's crediting these programs for reductions in use is putting the cart before the horse.

As drug testing is currently practiced, students must be observed (by a teacher or other adult) as they urinate to be sure the sample they produce is their own. The collection of a specimen is a humiliating, invasive violation of privacy. For an adolescent (as well as most adults), this experience is especially embarrassing.

Testing can have the unanticipated effect of keeping students from participating in after-school, extracurricular programs -- the very same activities that would fill their time during the peak teenage drug-using hours of 3-6 PM. A Tulia, Texas student summed it up when she said, "I know lots of kids who don't want to get into sports ... because they don't want to get drug tested. That's one of the reasons I'm not into any [activity]. I'm on medication, so I would always test positive, and then they would have to ask me about my medication, and I would be embarrassed. And what if I'm on my period? I would be too embarrassed."

School districts across our country are in a financial crisis, with cuts further threatening the quality of education in America. The millions of dollars proposed for random drug testing could be used more wisely, having a real rather than symbolic impact on high school drug abuse.

School administrators in Dublin, Ohio, for example, calculated that their $35,000 per year drug testing program was not cost-efficient. Of 1,473 students tested, at $24 each, 11 tested positive, for a total cost of $3,200 per "positive" student. They cancelled the program, and with the savings were able to hire a full-time counselor and provide prevention programs for all 3,581 students.

Random drug testing may provide a false sense of security among school officials and parents who believe the program will let them know which students abuse drugs. In fact, testing will detect a tiny fraction of users, many of them without problems, and miss too many who are in trouble. If we are truly intent on helping students, we should listen to drug abuse professionals who know that detection of problems requires careful attention to signs such as truancy, erratic behavior, and falling grades.

Some will argue that students need drug testing to help them say "no." But in 2003, the "State of Our Nation's Youth" survey found that, contrary to popular belief, most teens are not pressured to use drugs. The same survey found, much to the surprise of many parents (myself included), that 75 percent of teenagers actually enjoy spending time with their parents, and feel they have a good relationship with them.

Indeed, it's relationships built on trust, with parents, teachers and other caring adults, that accounts for the well being of teenagers. Drug testing actually has the effect of undermining parental influence, forcing adults to say, in essence, "I don't trust you," to their teenagers.

As young adults, teens need to know we expect them to learn how to take responsibility for their health. They need science-based drug education, counseling, and support. If they don't learn make wise decisions about alcohol and other drugs in high school, how will they enter the post-high school world as responsible adults?

Random drug testing may seem a panacea, but it is fraught with social, emotional and financial problems. Before we leap into another program (like DARE) that uses our teenagers as guinea pigs, we should carefully examine the many repercussions, pitfalls and alternatives to random student drug testing.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, is a medical sociologist who directs the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.