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Drug Testing Gets Failing Grade

When it comes to random student drug testing, educators and parents should proceed with extreme caution -- it may be doing more harm than good.
 
 
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The Office of National Drug Control Policy descends upon Orlando, Fla., on Thursday to host the first of four "summits" around the country promoting random student drug testing. While Orange County has resisted what Drug Czar John Walters calls a "silver bullet," enthusiastic conference presenters will no doubt sound as though they have all the answers for preventing teen drug use, and backed with a federal budget upwards of $9 million, the push in on.

As the mother of four, a National Institute on Drug Abuse scholar and director of a drug abuse prevention program advocating science-based drug education for teens, I urge Florida's educators and parents to be wary of "feel good" promises and proceed with extreme caution when it comes to student drug testing, as it may be doing more harm than good. Consider the very real pitfalls:

  • Random drug testing has not been proven to deter drug use. In 2003, the National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the largest study ever conducted on the topic. Researchers compared 76,000 students in schools with and without drug testing and found no differences in illegal drug use among students from both sets of schools. In a 2005 report that critiqued studies touted by ONDCP in support of random student drug testing, professor Neil McKeganey found fundamental flaws and biases, saying, "It is a matter of concern that student drug testing has been widely developed within the USA … on the basis of the slimmest available research evidence."
  • Random drug testing alienates students. The collection of a specimen is a humiliating violation of privacy that already self-conscious adolescents should not have to endure.
  • Drug testing can have the unanticipated effect of keeping students from participating in after-school, extracurricular programs -- activities that would fill their time during the peak teenage drug-use hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Random testing infuses an insidious sense of suspicion into the delicate student-teacher relationship, which can create a hostile school environment. This is especially disturbing in light of research showing that student connectedness to their school is an important predictor of success.
  • Drug testing is expensive and inefficient. School districts across the country, including many in Florida, are in financial crisis and simply cannot afford to shell out thousands of dollars each year while extracurricular programs struggle to survive. Gateway High, for example, in Osceola County, initially implemented a drug-testing program but dropped it a year later due to budgetary concerns.
  • Testing is not the best way to detect problems with alcohol and other drugs. Though it may provide a false sense of security among school officials and parents, who believe it tells which students abuse drugs, in fact testing detects only a tiny fraction of users and misses 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 argue that students need drug testing to help them say "no," but research questions this assumption. The 2005 "State of Our Nation's Youth" survey found that, contrary to popular belief, most teens are not pressured to use drugs. Besides, if teens don't learn how to respond to the presence and pressure of the drug culture when they are in high school, when will they learn?

Random drug testing may seem a panacea, but it is fraught with social, emotional and financial problems. Before we leap into a program that uses students as guinea pigs, we should examine the many repercussions, pitfalls and alternatives to random drug testing.

Marsha Rosenbaum directs the Safety First drug education program at the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco. She is the author of "Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs and Drug Education" (2004).