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Drug Testing News

Schools should stay away from drug testing

Last Updated: May 8, 2003

It was only a matter of time before school districts in Waukesha County made the move toward random, mandatory drug testing of high school students in extracurricular activities.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to broader drug testing in public schools last June, though barely, with a 5-4 vote. The decision found drug tests reasonable in schools' attempts to prevent, deter and detect drug use.

Now two local school districts - Pewaukee and Oconomowoc - seem headed there. Only about 20 of the state's 426 school districts now have such a policy, says the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

In Pewaukee, the school board has asked for a sample policy for random drug testing of students in sports and other extracurricular activities after parents - nearly 300 responded of the 600 surveyed - voiced strong support.

In Oconomowoc, a testing program was recommended by a community committee exploring drug issues. The school board wants feedback from students, parents and others affected before taking up a proposed policy again.

It looks like the districts are taking their time. That's good. Just like the Supreme Court's vote, this new territory is a close call, I think.

Even the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has some cautions on the subject in its guide, "What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools."

"It is not enough to have a general sense that student drug testing sounds like a good idea," the report says. "Schools must first determine whether there is a real need for testing." And, "schools considering testing will want plenty of public input."

I didn't particularly like the idea three years ago when administrators in my district - Waukesha - suggested (and then dropped) a drug testing policy. I don't like the idea much better now.

True, some high school students drink, smoke pot or use other drugs. The threat of getting caught might make them think twice about the risk and stay clean. Not just at one party, but perhaps even into adulthood. Students who don't imbibe have nothing to worry about. And when these students reach the real world, chances are they'll face drug testing as a condition of employment.

True, all true. Still, there are other considerations.

Students most engaged in school through activities are the only ones subjected to testing. Certainly they are no more prone to drug use than the disengaged students - and very likely less prone - yet they're the ones who must prove themselves trustworthy. That's the wrong message.

Students on the fringe might quit a useful sports team or school activity rather than risk positive tests for drug use, turning a bad situation worse.

Other issues? Technical ones, like false positives, ways to beat the tests, and tests that fail to detect alcohol, inhalants or other drugs. Lost privacy. Parents who let school drug tests take them off the hook for keeping a supervisory eye themselves.

Finally, what happens to students who do test positive? Do they sit out a ball game or two or a couple of school play performances? Or do they get some real help?

In these terrible budget times, many school districts are making painful cuts in many programs. Programs that keep students on track - from smaller class sizes to music enrichment that helps self-discipline, from guidance counselors and social workers to services for at-risk students.

Waylaid money spent on easy-answer drug testing is hardly what's needed to keep our kids headed in the right direction.