Big Brother Is Testing Your Urine
Lindsay Earls was a 16-year-old sophomore at Tecumseh High School in Oklahoma when the school decided to implement a random drug testing policy in 1998 for students involved in extracurricular activities.
Earls, already a high academic achiever with a long list of extracurricular activities, including choir practice, was herded along with other students into an auditorium at the small school just 30 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, and from there to a bathroom. She and three other girls were made to pee into a cup, while teachers stood outside of the stall. The teachers listened for the girls' urine stream, and then checked the cups for warmth and clarity.
The experience, Earls told the American Civil Liberties Union -- which later took an ensuing lawsuit, Board of Education v. Earls all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court -- was uncomfortable for everyone involved. It felt, she said, "like an invasion of my privacy ... Just because you walk into school doesn't mean you give up all your rights."
Earls had never done drugs, and never tested positive for drugs as a result of the random testing. With a long list of academic accomplishments, she eventually gained admission to Dartmouth College. As Earls and her family were quick to point out, the issue had nothing to do with taking drugs, but with Fourth Amendment rights protecting citizens -- of all ages -- against unreasonable search and seizure.
"We opposed it on the basis that we felt that schools were stepping into areas that they shouldn't be," said Lindsay's mother, Lori Earls, in a recent press conference announcing the launch of the Web site Drug Testing Fails. "It's important for people to realize that there are better ways to address drug abuse in youth, and extracurricular activities are important for deterring youth from [taking drugs]."
The website, funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, is the latest effort by a nascent, oppositional coalition of parents, students, coaches and teachers alarmed by the implications of this summer's Supreme Court ruling on Board of Education v. Earls.
On June 27, 2002, the Court reversed an earlier federal appeals court ruling that had deemed random drug testing on students involved in extracurricular activities to be unconstitutional. By a 5-4 margin, the Justices expanded a 1995 ruling in Vernonia School District v. Acton, which upheld the right of school districts to conduct random drug testing on student athletes. In its ruling, the Court concluded that, like student athletes, students involved in extracurricular activities had a "reduced expectation of privacy," and that the administration of urine tests (or other forms of random drug testing) did not significantly intrude on a student's privacy.
Suspicionless drug testing programs force a wedge between students and teachers and parents," said Judy Appel of the DPA. "No single study ... shows that drug testing discourages drug use. In fact, random drug testing programs can cause more problems than they seek to solve."
The dissenting judges in Board of Education v. Earls, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were similarly concerned about the troubling implications of this landmark ruling. Tecumseh High School's policy, they wrote, "invades the privacy of students who need deterrence least, and risks steering students at greatest risk for substance abuse away from extracurricular involvement that potentially may palliate drug problems."
According to the DPA, only 3 percent of school districts around the country have implemented random drug testing policies for students involved in chess club, debate team, after-school music programs and other activities. Others have implemented such programs only to rescind them after analyzing the bottom line: at an average cost of $42 per tested student and a relatively small pool of positive drug test results, several school districts (including schools in Dublin, Ohio, which had spent $35,000 per year to bust 11 students out of a total student body of nearly 1,500), have opted for alternative deterrence methods.
Ironically, said Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum at the DPA press conference, the best methods of non-parental "deterrence" are precisely those kinds of extracurricular programs in which students now have reason to fear the possibility of random drug testing. "We should be applauding students who spend their time productively, not subjecting them to suspicion and humiliation."
In addition to the invasion of privacy brought about by suspicionless drug testing, added Rosenbaum, students can end up resenting their parents for allowing the testing in the first place. "I can't think of a worse way of establishing a trusting relationship," she explained. "And the problem that we're having with kids now is that they don't trust what adults are telling them about drugs. They know we'll say just about anything to get them to abstain."
For Lee Artz, a varsity basketball coach in New Buffalo, Michigan, the issue comes down to a willingness to invest time and energy, rather than fear and suspicion, into the lives of young Americans.
"If you treat students with respect, they usually return that and they go on to excel long after they've left high school," said Artz, who is actively opposed to efforts to institute a random drug-testing program in his school district.
In his decade of coaching basketball, Artz has arrived at the conclusion that using coercive strategies with young adults inevitably leads to undesirable consequences ranging from lowered self-esteem to increasingly defiant or antisocial behavior.
Artz's perspectives are echoed by guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association and the National Association of Social Workers -- all of which recommend establishing open lines of communication, respectful relationships, clear guidelines for appropriate behavior and support and enthusiasm for a young person's potential.
The treatment of students who do test positive for drugs is also highly problematic, according to David Brown, a board member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a high school student at Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida. Zero-tolerance policies where drugs are concerned, he says, are more the exception than the norm. And those policies, he explains, often lead to on-the-spot expulsion without the possibility of intervention, treatment or any semblance of understanding of the differences between recreational and habitual drug use. "Parents want to know that their teenagers are safe," Brown stated. "But will the general welfare of Americans be served by this?"
Concern for student welfare may be only be the most surface factor in the trend of random drug testing in schools.
Nationwide, home and workplace drug testing is already big business, and key players in the industry seems poised to seize on the latest Supreme Court ruling to realize even greater profits.
In a July 22, 2002 press release, Daniel G. McGuire, president and CEO of Worldwide Medical Corporation, stated that the Supreme Court decision would "accelerate the company's focus towards the educational marketplace." (The company already manufactures the trademarked "First Check" home screening test that can test for the presence of alcohol and drugs.)
In Michigan, explained Lee Ertz, local schools have already been approached by companies offering to provide drug-testing paraphernalia free for the first year. "We don't want to be misled by drug testing companies who want to come in and give us a deal," Ertz responded. "And the reason we don't want it has nothing to do with cost. [Drug testing] coerces people and destroys their dignity."
Silja J.A. Talvi is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in In These Times, Z Magazine and ColorLines Magazine, among others. She is co-editor of LiP Magazine.