Here's Your Cup, Junior

Students from Paradise, Calif., to Pequannock, N.J., are turning in more than just their homework this school year. At the behest of the White House, tens of thousands of middle and high school students are required to randomly submit their urine to school authorities – and it’s America’s taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Though promoted as a "silver bullet" in the Bush administration’s efforts to curb teen drug use, the reality of random student drug testing is far less flattering. Student drug testing without suspicion is ineffective, costly and opens a "Pandora’s Box" of serious ethical questions. That’s according to the only federally commissioned study ever to assess the efficacy of student drug testing on a national basis. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found no difference in the level of illegal drug use between students in schools that test for illicit drugs and those in schools that do not.

"Drug testing of students in schools does not deter use," said the University of Michigan news release summarizing the findings of the four-year study, which was later published in the Journal of School Health. "At each grade level studied – 8, 10 and 12 – the investigators found virtually identical rates of drug use in schools that have drug testing and the schools that do not."

More recently, a comprehensive review by Britain’s distinguished Joseph Rowntree Foundation also gave student drug testing a failing grade. Their report noted that objective evidence supporting the effectiveness of random student drug testing is "remarkably thin" and warned that the policy could do greater harm than good.

That’s because student drug testing "undermine[s] trust between pupils and staff" and in some cases "encourage[s] pupils to switch from [the] use of cannabis … that can be traced a relatively long time after use, to drugs that are cleared from the body much more quickly, including heroin."

In other words, if you’re looking for a surefire way to persuade little Johnny to switch from pot to binge drinking or crank, look no further than student drug testing.

Experts also warn that suspending students from participating in extracurricular activities for failing or refusing to take a drug test may cause teens undue and long-term harm. According to professor Howard Taras, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health: "[Drug] screening may decrease involvement in extracurricular activities among students who regularly use or have once used drugs. Without such engagement in healthy activities, adolescents are more likely to drop out of school, become pregnant, join gangs, pursue substance abuse and engage in other risky behaviors."

Disturbingly, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to these concerns. This spring, the administration sponsored a series of regional symposiums to encourage public school districts nationwide to enact random, student drug testing.

The White House also proposed increasing federal funding for student drug testing programs by more than 150 percent – the bulk of which is earmarked to pay for the implementation of local student drug testing programs at taxpayers’ expense.

To date, Congress has raised barely a whisper about the administration’s record funding request. Most recently, politicians refused to debate an amendment to the House Labor and Education appropriations bill that sought to scale back the administration’s proposed expansion of the program. Congress and the White House would be best advised to abandon the policy altogether.

Random drug testing of students is a humiliating, invasive practice that runs contrary to the principles of due process. It compels teens to potentially submit evidence against themselves and forfeit their privacy rights as necessary requirements for attending school. Rather than presuming our school children innocent of illicit activity, drug testing without suspicion presumes them guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Is this truly the message the Bush administration wishes to send to America’s young people?

Students should not be taught that they must abandon their constitutional liberties at the school door or that they must submit to an invasion of their privacy because those in Washington are willing to write off an entire generation of students as potential criminals in their overzealous "war" on drugs.

October 12, 2005