Pros and Cons of Drug Testing in Schools

Across the country, many schools have random drug testing programs.  They are considered the latest tool in what has appeared to be a losing battle against illegal drug consumption by students. 

However, testing has not been without its share of controversy and many schools have dismissed the idea rather than be pulled into the fray.  With cases making it all the way to the Supreme Court, it is important to know the merits of each argument.

Pros of drug testing

* May act as a deterrent to drug use

Schools often claim drug testing is used as a deterrent to starting or continuing to use drugs.  Drug testing of pilots is a common example of its effectiveness in the workforce.  One school program which has been highly touted for its successful reduction of drug use is a voluntary drug testing program in Autauga County, Alabama.  In their publication “What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools”, The Office of National Drug Control Policy sites that this program successfully reduced nicotine use by 11.5%, alcohol use by 9.9% and marijuana use by 6.7% over a two year period.  Detractors of drug testing point out that, in this example, drug testing was part of an incentivized program where students were rewarded with discounts from local stores in the community and it is not clear that drug testing alone would produce such results. 

Additionally, the research has not been overly supportive of the deterrent claim.  Most recently, a 2007 study of high school athletes, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health,  found that students under random drug testing programs did not consider testing a reason to avoid drug use and gave indication to increased risk for future abuse problems.

* Give students an excuse to refuse drugs

More important than the fear factor of drug testing may be the excuse factor.  Proponents point out that in an environment of peer pressure, students can blame drug testing instead of expressing their personal desire not to use drugs.  It’s similar to blaming parents for not being allowed to attend an unwise social event. 

While the excuse might not be any better accepted by their friends than the truth, it allows the student to distance themselves from the decision.  This idea may be especially useful for students who doubt their personal beliefs when confronted by people who do not share those values.

* Allow for intervention when students test positive

After preventing drug use from beginning, advocates such as the Student Drug Testing Coalition, see stopping it as a crucial reason testing is necessary.  The long term effects of drug use in adolescents and the importance of stopping drug use as quickly as possible are often part of the discussion.  The need is supported by a University of Michigan study published in 2004, which found a significantly higher rate of drug and heavy alcohol use at the age of 35 when students were already using by the time they graduated high school. 

Research suggests that the adolescent brain is still developing and that drug use can actually alter this development, leading to a higher rate of long term addiction and possibly a higher frequency of psychological disorders.  In a properly administered program, drug testing aids in the detection of students using drugs and allows them to receive necessary help.

Cons of drug testing

* May violate constitutional rights

The courts have repeatedly ruled that involuntary random drug testing on the entire student body is a violation of a student’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.  However, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Board of Education of Independent School District #92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls that random drug testing of middle and high school students involved in competitive extracurricular activities could be tested.  Some schools have attempted to expand drug testing to additional privileges beyond the court’s ruling, such as parking permits, but these expansions are not explicitly supported by the ruling. 

As a Fourth Amendment issue, attaching random drug testing to all school related privileges becomes comparable to attaching random home searches to the privilege of being an active member in the community.  In its ruling, the court demonstrated a belief that drug testing was an “effective means of addressing the School District’s legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring and detecting drug use.”  Since scientific study of student drug use continues to question the effectiveness of testing for these purposes, the court may later reverse itself.

* Push students out of activities that otherwise act as deterrents

Drug testing proponents site surveys of school principals as evidence that extracurricular participation does not decline with the implementation of testing programs.  But while schools report decreases in drug use among those being tested, studies show the drug using behavior and beliefs of individual participants isn’t actually changing.  For both statements to be true mathematically either non-drug users must be added to the testing group or drug users must be removed from the testing group. 

It is an unfortunate part of blind surveys for student drug use that they cannot guarantee they are surveying the same students in follow-up surveys, only a similarly identified group, such as athletes or class of 2012.  Competitive activities often limit the number of participants and the process of try outs and team cuts will hide students who stop participating as long as enough students participate to fill the roster because of the limits to data collection.  The number of participants and the rate of drug use simply does not explain who the participants are.

* High cost

There are three common sources for funding drug testing in schools—federal grants, community businesses and the school’s regular budget—but, ultimately, the people in the community pay for these tests.  The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that drug testing generally costs between $10 and $30 per test.  If a school tested an average of 25 students every other week, it would cost the school between $4500 and $13,500 each school year, even if every student tests negative.  Additional testing is required when a student tests positive.  The larger the eligible testing group, the more students need to be tested; otherwise, possible deterrence is minimized by the small risk of being tested. 

Even in the effort to detect for purpose of intervention, the school will be hampered by the fact that the testing is random.  If 30% of the student body admits to regular drug use, the school can predict that 7 out of every 10 tests will be money spent testing drug-free students.  Because the same student can be selected more than once, the actual waste is even higher and there is no guarantee of finding any of the drug using students.

Despite the attention, only an estimated 16.5% of schools have implemented a form of random drug testing.  While the goals remain laudable, it is a very expensive way to search out informed students who make poor choices.  In addition to the continued risk of legal action against schools that implement testing, continued research into the issue doesn’t support the drug testing’s effectiveness by itself. 

Drugs are highly damaging to a student’s still developing brain and it is important that communities attempt to intervene for the betterment of all.  It may be necessary for schools to consider more positively reinforcing and comprehensive approaches to using drug testing instead of a method based primarily on fear and coercion.