Opinion: Jury is out on effectiveness of drug testing in schools

Published 9:27 am Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Americans have become accustomed to random drug tests on a number of fronts. Urinating in a cup is not just for those on probation anymore.

In the sports world, doping for performance enhancement and to get high is monitored more closely than ever. In the workplace, few eyebrows are raised if one condition of employment is passing a drug test. Nor is it unusual to expect random testing at work to keep certain types of jobs.

But what about kids in public schools? Officials in the Duluth school district are considering random drug testing for some students. Should the proposal be adopted, the drug tests would be given only to high school students who play sports, join clubs or want to park in school parking lots.

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There are strong arguments on both sides of the student drug testing issue. The experiences of other districts, studies on teen drug testing and cost-benefit examinations have produced mixed results and few definitive answers. That’s why decisions about testing should continue to come from each school community based on its needs — not from a broader policy.

Duluth school officials say they’re considering using drug testing as an additional tool to discourage drug use. Punishment is not the primary goal. Rather, teens who test positive might receive counseling or treatment. Random testing can be a deterrent for students who want to participate in extracurricular activities. And teens can use the policy to resist peer pressure and “just say no.’’

From the opposite perspective, civil liberties advocates argue that random testing invades privacy and violates civil rights. Some argue that testing doesn’t work, because some studies show little or no difference in drug use between districts that test and those that don’t.

A national study published last week in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found drug testing to have no effect on student drug use. However, that same research indicated that a positive school environment reduced the number of students who started smoking cigarettes and using marijuana.

In addition to effectiveness, there is also the question of cost. A 2008 report estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. schools had random testing programs. The average drug test cost between $15 and $35. Some state high school athletic leagues have done testing that ran up into six figures.

Seven years ago, Texas started to test high school athletes, conducting more than 10,000 tests. But under budgetary pressure, the program shrunk to about a third of its original size. In Florida, the high school association spent $100,000 to test 600 students but discontinued the program after a year because of lack of funding.

The Minnesota State High School League has drug and alcohol use rules that apply to any student who wants to play sports at a league-affiliated school. Students who are caught using can be suspended from playing. But the provisions don’t involve random testing.

Instead, individual students and their parents must sign a document indicating that they will abide by the rules. Initial violations can result in suspension from play for a few games, while second and third violations may prohibit students from playing for an entire season.

Duluth school officials have a model in their Wisconsin neighbor, Superior, where the district has conducted random drug tests since 2006. School leaders there had seen a significant increase in students expelled for having drugs in school, so they turned to drug testing and had very little resistance to the idea.

Now more than half the high school’s 1,400 students — those who do voluntary co-curricular activities, including sports, clubs and parking in the school lot — have an assigned number for the weekly, random drawings.

The approach is working for Superior. In some other districts and parts of the country, parental pushback killed random testing programs and proposals.

Duluth is up next in Minnesota, and the true test will be if officials can convince parents and students that drug screening is effective and worth the cost.